Meryton Matchmakers Book1: Lottie Pursues Bill
A modern Pride and Prejudice Variation
By Kristi Rose
BILL LAUGHED AND began rubbing his hands manically. “This is my favorite part. When the embarrassing family shows up.” He’d been around Mrs. Bennet long enough to know something was going to go down. The woman was a one person wrecking ball where her mouth was concerned. Unfortunately her job was to ink all her thoughts and speculations, regardless of truth and consequences. She worked for one of the most popular tabloids and, Bill was willing to wager, was eager to work her way to the top there, having switched to the rag a few years back when her previous employer suddenly closed.
Elizabeth sighed. “It’s not that she’s embarrassing, really. Just that we need time to—. Well, I’m not sure.”
“Prepare? Gird your loins? Drink? All the above?” Bill supplied.
“Hello, it’s fabulous to see you. I know. I do look great, don’t I?” Johanna Bennet, the sisters’ mother called out to people as she passed them, beelining straight for Jane and Elizabeth. ”Just came back from the south of France. Found my happy place there. You should try it, Mr. Yelvington.”
“For the record,” Bill said, as Johanna approached, “Lydia was the one to remind her. I believe it happened right after you asked her for rent money. Heard her tell Kitty.” He turned to Darcy. “That’s the thing about being a man of the cloth, people automatically think everything we hear is kept confidential. Not so much.” He waved to the older Bennet woman. “Hello, Mrs. Bennet. It’s wonderful to see you. We weren’t expecting you at this little get-together.”
“Hello, Bill,” she said as she approached him. When she stretched onto her toes and delivered a kiss to each cheek, he was not only caught off balance by her overwhelming cloud of Chanel no. 5, but the by the kisses as well.
“Gone European on us, have you?” he asked as he eased away.
“Darling, please.” She rubbed her thumb over his cheek, probably brushing off the bright red lipstick she’d left behind. He saw Elizabeth’s eyes roll upward.
“Hello, Mother. We’re surprised you fit this in your busy schedule,” Jane said and stepped forward to deliver a kiss to her mother’s cheek, only having to deliver a second to the other one.
“Oh, sweet Jane. I missed your father, and the city is unbearably hot. So we agreed to spend a few weeks here for respite.” Mrs. Bennet turned toward Elizabeth. “Lizzy dear.” She used a tone noticeably less endearing than the one she used for Jane but let her daughter kiss her cheeks nonetheless. “Now that you have convinced Lydia to move and abandon your father, I was forced to make some difficult decisions and come home early. How am I supposed to work from here? Not a lot going on—”
Bill saw Mrs. Bennet’s eyes widen, likely at the same time Elizabeth did, she swiveled her head in the direct of her mother’s owl-like stare.
“Well, Mr. Darcy. Why ever are you in the fair town of Meryton? Have something to take apart? Destroy? Hope to squash.”
Next to him Lottie gasped, and Bill metaphorically put on his pastor hat. If he needed to pull in the Lord to turn things around, he would. Sometimes people needed reminders that there was something greater than themselves. Regardless of whether they believed in a higher power or not, the vast majority believed there was the chance something omnipotent existed and could possibly smite them.
“Mother!” Jane said.
“I was unaware you two knew each other,” Elizabeth said.
Mrs. Bennet crossed her arms, tilted her head back, and scowled at Darcy. “I would say we are more acquainted than know each other. Mr. Darcy took over for his father after he passed. This was when I was working The Tattler. I loved that job.” She directed all her words at Darcy. “Then your father passed. Such an amazing man, no one will ever be able to fill his shoes, that’s for sure.”
Caroline Bingley gasped loudly. Or perhaps it was just echoed by the sisters’ collective gasps.
“Mother, please.” Elizabeth said. “Mr. Darcy is here working with our company.”
“Well, you’ll do well to watch your back, Lizzy. His father wasn’t cold in the ground when he shut the paper down and several people lost their jobs.”
Certain there was little truth in that statement, Bill wanted to defend Darcy. As much as Bill and his own father were polar opposites, Darcy and his father were cut from the same cloth, and a remark that he wasn’t filling his shoes had to cut deeply. Though one couldn’t tell if it affected Darcy at all. The only indication was his posture had straightened more, if possible.
“Looks like you’ve done well regardless.” Darcy was holding the cupcake paper in one hand, his other hand resting casually in the pocket of his dark washed jeans. His lack of reaction was not surprising to Bill, but Mrs. Bennet got ruffled up about it. She was a tabloid rumormonger, she liked getting people worked up, and not to do so was something she likely interpreted as a personal failure.
“I see that you’re doing what you do best and slowly destroying everything your father built—”
“Mother,” Elizabeth interjected, taking her mother’s arm. “Did you see Lydia was here? I bet she’s missed you. Let us take you to her now. We can get a drink on the way. I bet you’re thirsty from your travel here.” Elizabeth spun her mother around and speed-walked her across the lawn of the park.
“Still want to see the town?” Jane asked Bingley, who appeared to be torn between going with the girl who’d captured his interest and his friend who’d just taken some hits.
“I, ah—I’ll catch up with you. Soon.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake, Chaz,” Caroline bit out.
Jane smiled, walked a few steps backward, then turned, and followed her sister.
“I need to get some video footage. You all right, Darcy? Want me to hack into her accounts and move her money out or something?” Anne started walking away, backward. “You know I can do it?”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. She’s said worse before.” He gave a wry smile. “Where can I dispose of this?” He was still holding the cupcake wrapper.
“Oh, I can take that. Sorry.” Lottie grabbed it and tossed it in the trash under the table.
“Shall we go walk the town, Caro? Maybe see if we can find you an antique or two?” Darcy held out his hand, and after she took it, he said, “We’ll catch up with you, Chaz, later.” They strolled off as if the event had never happened.
“Well,” Lottie said. “He was quite gracious just then. Mrs. Bennet's hard to keep your cool around.”
She appeared shell-shocked herself. It would seem the assault affected the others more than Darcy.
Bill contemplated Lottie. Something was different. He liked the way her hair fell with the fat braid. It made him remember times in her tree house when they’d laugh and he’d feel safe. Though the low cut of her T-shirt did not remind him of those days. When had Little Lottie Lucas filled out? Maybe a long time ago, considering he was used to seeing her with an apron on over baggy clothes.
Jeez, for a pastor and counselor he sucked at observation.
“You need help with anything?” he asked while eyeing the cupcakes. Sometimes she let him take the leftovers to his students. It helped with the course reviews he was obligated to request. These cupcakes would go over well, if he didn’t mention their names.
“I could use some help bringing a few more things from the van, but everything else is set up. I have to get the natural mosquito repellant out before the sun sets or this party will be over before someone can say hydrocortisone.”
Bill chuckled. “Steer me in the direction of the Cupcake Chariot? Or the Cupcake Machine.” He started scanning the distance for her bright robin’s eye blue van.
From behind him she chuckled, a soft floaty sound he had heard a million times but today did something to him in places that surprised him.
“Neither of those work, you know.” Her voice had a soft yet slightly husky tone that rippled through him and sent all his nerve endings on full alert.
Was he getting turned on by Lottie Lucas? He glanced at the cupcake table and wondered if she spiked them with more than liqueurs? Something magical? Not that she did that sort of thing, but what had happened today that changed everything? Yesterday he’d sat on her counter while she made scones and talked about the cliffhanger to his favorite show and not once had he thought about pushing her up against the counter and licking the frosting from her lips.
Now that was all he could think about. He turned to her. Not that she had frosting on her lips, but there was enough at hand that he could rectify that situation immediately.
“Bill?” She was holding out her keys.
“Ah, well, ah, they didn’t solve mysteries in the mystery machine, but that’s what they called it.” He snatched the keys and saw his hand was trembling. He tucked them in his back pockets.
“Keep trying. You’ll come across a name that works. The van is parked there.”
He followed her finger to a spot closest to the tables. Her long curvy arm was toned from all that batter-stirring and bread-kneading.
“I’m coming right behind you. I want to grab some of the empty carafes.” She smiled up at him, and for the first time ever he saw Charlotte. Sure, he always knew she was a smart, forward thinking businesswoman with a level head, but he also saw a single woman with thick chestnut hair and behind her glasses were captivating green eyes. He thought about how on hot summer days he’d catch her lounging around in boxer shorts. In a flash all those memories slammed into his mind’s eye, and he could see nothing else but her, looking dead sexy in a T-shirt and men’s underwear.
“Are you okay?” She waved a hand in front of his face.
“What? Yeah, fine. Just thinking.”
“About what? You're a million miles away.” She tilted her head to the side and waited, and he adored that about her. She always gave him her undivided attention. Even while prepping food or in the middle of rush hour, she’d stop and wait.
He was bumped from behind and almost ran Lottie down, having to grab her at the top of her arms to stop his momentum.
“Sorry,” came the voice behind him.
Bill turned to find it was that bakery-owning guy.
“I want to try another. I think I have an addiction to your cupcakes, Charlotte. I look forward to meeting with you tomorrow.” He winked at her and strolled away with two cupcakes in hand.
When Bill looked back at Lotts she had a serious blush going on. “Are you interested in that guy? He comes off kinda…well, greasy, if you will. Maybe smarmy is a better word.”
“Hush, Bill.” She crossed her arms. “Why shouldn’t I be interested? He’s interested in my cupcakes and has the ability to distribute them to more people than I see here in Meryton.”
“I mean, the winking and flirting kinda interested?” He’d thought the words. Had decided to not say them only to have them roll out anyway.
She shrugged. “I’m not getting any younger, and I would like to marry. I don’t see anyone else interested, do you?” She bit her lip and avoided eye contact.
Bill didn’t like the sound of that. He wasn’t ready for life around him to change—a lot. It needed to happen slowly. One bit at a time.
“But I did submit a questionnaire to Lizzy’s place. So hopefully all that will change.” She crossed her fingers on both hands and paired it with a large smile. He expected her to roll her eyes, to add some snark to the comment, but she didn’t.
Jeepers! Wasn’t that moving too fast? He knew he couldn’t keep things how he wanted, not changing, forever. But couldn’t he just deal with one issue at a time? Lady Catherine, Meryton Matchmakers, his job at the seminary seemed like enough for now. Lottie in the pursuit of happiness? Actively seeking. He’d have to mull that over some more. Instinctively, he didn’t like it. Why, though, was another question.
He thought about some of the guys that had recently signed-up for a match. Strong military men, a burly firefighter, and even a chef. Any of those men would be stupid not to fall for Lotts. Shoot, in his sound mind he knew it required more than just seeing her to love her, or anyone for that matter, but she was the full package. She could cook, was funny, easy to be around. Yeah, for him she lacked a little faith, but at least she never made fun of his. He wondered what the odds were on her finding an agnostic match to his finding a God-loving woman. God-loving in the same manner as he was. He wasn’t really into zealots or pretenders. Just a nice, even-keeled woman, who believed in something more than herself and everything she read on the Internet. He’d bet Lottie would have an easier time. Hands down.
“Hey, Lotts, what are you doing Saturday night?” He had an idea that wouldn’t let go. He knew he should really think about this plan, but once the idea had planted, it took root and had blossomed. Besides, if he was going to share his more personal secret side with someone, why not her? She knew just about everything else about him.
“Why? I mean, you know. The usual. Whatever. It’s my Sunday off so Saturday is free for me to do whatever. I don’t care what I do as long as I sleep in.”
“I want to show you something, care to go into the city with me?” He tossed her keys from hand to hand, waiting for her to accept. Hoping she would. Scared if she did.
“New York City or Boston?”
“New York.” The cupcake he’d eaten earlier was sitting like a rock in his stomach. Was he ready for someone to know his secret? The more time it took for her to answer, the less certain he was.
“Sure. What time? We driving or taking the train?” She flipped that sexy braid over her other shoulder, and he was done for. Yeah, taking her would be okay. Because it was Lotts after all. And she was awesome.
“Both. I’ll come by around seven. Sound good?”
She nodded. “Is casual good?”
Casual what? Sex? Probably frowned about by his peers and ultimate Boss.
“What? Oh, clothes, yeah.” He started repeating Bible verses in his head, starting with John 1:1.
“Sounds interesting.” She stepped away then turned back suddenly. “Oh, be careful with the top container of cupcakes. The handle is broken so don’t use that to carry it.”
“Got it,” he said and watched her walk away, staring at her certain assets, a light sweat breaking out across his forehead.
Bill idled outside Lottie’s place, overwhelmed by the weight of his misgivings. Was he doing the right thing? He couldn’t undo it.
After helping her unload the van yesterday, he’d avoided her to his best abilities. Which was hard since he was used to seeking her out and sharing random observations with her. But his mind had been filled with a thousand different scenarios and questions, and he’d used distance while he sought perspective. He hadn’t found it. He’d even walked by the café the following day and watched her through the big front window as she chatted with the New Yorker dude. It left him more confused by the conflict of emotions he experienced.
Now, he was about to let her in on a secret he’d not shared with a soul. Okay, that wasn’t an accurate statement. He’d shared, but with a thousand unknown souls. People he knew odds of seeing again were slim. But letting Lotts in would be like blending his two worlds, and he wasn’t sure they mixed.
He turned the key and cut the ignition. One thing Bill Collins wasn’t was a coward. Nor was he a welcher on his plans. He’d let his father be the Collins known for that. Besides, the party in the park had been a huge success with a larger number of sign-ups than they anticipated. Usually one was a good number, but they had five come in person to start the process. Jane’s videos were getting endless hits, and the cessation of the free registration promotion had only caused a slight decrease. Both his and Lottie’s forms were in the system, churning through the program Anne had installed and coming up with Lord only knows what sort of information. Bill knew if Lottie matched with someone, he would have to meet with her as the company’s counselor. He wondered if he might bring in someone else for that particular duty.
Following a deep breath, he slid from the car, and before he started down the path to the door, he said a short prayer. Hey, it was who he was.
Lottie swung open the door before he could knock. “It’s about to get loud in there. Lydia’s home with no date and very unhappy about it.”
“Your chariot, Madame,” he said and gave an exaggerated bow next to small a SUV. Jeez, what a stupid thing to say. And do!
“Come on.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the path. “If she sees you, she’ll figure out a way to horn in.”
He liked the way her hand felt in his, small and soft.
They drove to Hartford and caught the train in to the city. By the time they’d reached the station, Bill had slid back into the spot where he felt comfortable with her again. They laughed about the trouble Lydia liked to cause and talked about the fate of the Matchmaker business, which was anybody’s guess. She shared what New York Baker Guy had proposed—that they take another meeting—and what her limits to selling to him were.
From the train, he guided her down through lower Manhattan where they stopped in front of a comedy club.
“What I am about to show you is a secret. You can’t breathe a word to anyone.”
She looked between the club’s small sign and Bill. “Is this a trick? Like I think it’s a comedy club but inside is really some secret sect of the Lutheran Church where you’re housing the Holy Grail?”
Bill arched a brow. “That would be super cool, but no. I think you have to be married or really high up to get those church privileges. Come on in. You’ll see.”
They found a table to the side of the stage. Bill left her to get drinks and to check in with the owner. He’d been here before and being asked to come back had put him on such a high he couldn’t define it.
When he took his seat next to Lottie, he had to wipe his palms on his jeans several times as his nerves had kicked into overdrive. The act on the stage finished, and Bill leaned toward her. “Listen, I’ll be back in a minute.”
It was a white lie—maybe. He knew that from this moment on things would be different for them. She would see him in a new way, no matter what she believed. Tonight he would unearth some of his past, his hardships with his overbearing father, and turn them into fodder. She’d been there when the events had originally happened. Would she be able to see it differently? Would she laugh?
He stepped around the side of the bar behind the curtain and faced a wall, gathering his wits. He needed to push back his fear and move past it. He could thank his father for this skill, compartmentalizing equating to surviving.
He listened to the emcee and, when he heard his name, stepped out on the stage.
LOTTIE COULDN’T BELIEVE her eyes. Bill? Doing stand-up comedy? She expected someone to jump out and tell her it was a prank. He’d always been a funny guy but never expressed a desire to be a comedian.
He shuffled to the microphone, his smile broad and genuine, and it immediately drew the crowd in.
“Evening. I appreciate you all being here tonight. It’s good to stand in front of a crowd knowing they’re here of their own volition. During my day job, when I get before a crowd, what usually drives the masses together is their fear of hellfire and damnation. I’ll admit that I sometimes use it to my benefit. We preachers have to have some tools in our chest. Right?”
A few people chuckled.
“And standing up here in front of a tough crowd gives me practice for Judgment Day. That’s going to be a tough crowd for sure, all dead and angry.”
Some more chuckles.
“But the truth is, because I’ve taken an oath to tell the truth no matter what, I don’t have a church. I mean, I go to a church, but I don’t stand in front of one and thump on my Bible. Nah, I’m not interested in that. Who can compete with social media? Shoot, even I want to check my Facebook page during most sermons. You know God’s on there.” He pointed to people in the crowd. “Next time you're on, check. He has a page. Hand to God, that’s the truth.” Bill put his hand up.
The laughter grew.
“Have to be careful about social media during church hours. I figured if He catches me on my phone during work hours He might write me up. Or worse, smite me. Unless I’m tweeting a flattering quote about him. He might overlook that.” He pulled up his bangs and showed a jagged scar running down his forehead and stopped short of his brow. “See that? I got that for saying the Lord’s name in vain while standing in a church. So you can see why I don’t want a church.” A lady gasped, and he singled her out. “Not by God. My dad did that. But claimed the Spirit moved him to do it.”
He walked to the other side of the stage. “Have you seen they’re giving churches reviews now? Yeah, true story. Imagine reading something awful about yourself online. I’m not sure I’d have nice thoughts or words for a person who leaves a bad review.” He waved to a woman in the crowd who’d laughed. “Isn’t that playing with fire? Aren’t those people scared? Imagine Judgment Day. God calls you up and asks you to confess your sins. Are you gonna remember the catty review you left? I wouldn’t, I’d be more worried about the big things. You know, I might have dreamed of someone’s unexpected demise—by unknown causes of course. But what are you gonna do? You’re standing before God, and he flips open His big books. Wait, I bet God is an Apple guy. He’d appreciate the irony there. So He’d scroll through His tablet, find your name, and say, ‘Says here you left a bad review on one of my disciples. You like making fun of my children?’ What are you going to say? You’re damned either way. You’re only hope is to grab the iPad and run for it. And let’s face it. That’s not going to work. So you can see why I don’t want to take a church. I’d read those reviews and feel compelled to respond to ‘@realchristianman’ or whatever name they use and call him out. At the very least respond to the review with a prayer asking God to strike good into their hearts. Which is minister-euphemism for heart attack. Hey, we aren’t perfect.”
The crowd was engaged, and Lottie couldn’t stop smiling.
“You should read these reviews. Some are on point, saying the sermon’s pacing was slow—we all know that’s got a high probability of being true. I searched online this particular preacher, he was old.” Bill shrugged. “I can’t argue that, some are ancient, and then you’re stuck sitting in those uncomfortably hard benches. I can live with those complaints. But another called the minister a douchebag. Jeez, I haven’t been called that since high school. Said the church offered watered-down Christianity. I went to the location because I wanted to know what watered-down Christians looked like, but I found it closed. In its place was a tarot card-reading, chakra-adjusting, and future telling-business. Same thing, right? For a small fee you can be scared witless or be given the keys to the kingdom.”
By now the crowd was laughing and nodding, and she was right there with them.
Bill ended his set with, “You've been a great audience. I'll put in a word for you with my boss.”
With the help of a waiter, she skirted the tables and made her way back behind the scenes. She found him sitting in a chair, his head tucked between his knees.
“Bill?” She didn’t know the man up on that stage.
He looked up, his face flushed, and a smile broke out.
“I love the high that comes from being on stage. Hearing people laugh. I love poking fun at myself.”
“I can tell.” She stepped toward him.
“It’s cathartic.” He drew in a deep breath, slapped his hands on his knees and then stood. “And you laughed the whole time.”
She had. A genuine laughter, the kind that erupts from deep within.
“I know what your laughter sounds like. I could hear it on the stage.” His eyes never strayed, his interest solely on her. Not the applauding crowd. Not the staff rushing around them.
Lottie knew what was going to happen. She could practically taste it. Just like when she was making a cupcake, and she knew, deep in her gut what was needed. Bill was going to kiss her.
She stepped up to him. “I’ve never seen you like this. Not ever, Bill. That was wonderful!”
He cupped her face between his hands, studied her, and then lowered his head. As his lips were about to touch hers, she heard him whisper her name. She slid her arms around him and stepped as close as she could get, giving him leave to deepen the kiss. Which he did. Hoping that this would not be the last kiss they’d share, but worried that it very well could be, Lottie drank the experience in. The soft press of his lips. The hard contours of his body. The way his thumb stroked her cheek. She wanted to weep with joy. To ask him why he waited so long. But this was new ground for them, and she wasn’t sure how to tread.
Things would be different now. This would always be something they shared.
The banging of a door caused Bill to jerk back. ”Jeez, I’m sorry.” He tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. “I forgot where we were.”
Her arms felt empty without him in them. How many years had she dreamed about this moment? And when it happened, it ended too soon. Just her luck.
“It’s all right,” she said and licked her lips.
The guy Bill had been speaking with earlier came around the corner.
“Hey.” He was boisterous in personality and clothing, his shirt a vibrant Paisley print. He extended his hand to Bill
“Larry, thanks for the slot tonight.” Bill quickly accepted the handshake.
“You’re really coming along, Bill,” Larry told him. “You’re welcome back anytime. I have a few big names coming in next month, and you can have an early slot. See if you might make some connections.”
Bill looked shocked, but she knew years of masking his expression quickly kicked in and seconds later he came off moderately pleased. “Yeah, I’d love that.”
“Great, here are the dates and times. See you then.” He handed Bill a slip of paper heavy with opportunity.
“Holy cow,” she said.
“You ain’t kidding.” He winked at her before returning his focus back to the card. He gave it a quick shake then tucked it in his pocket. “Let’s get out of here. We have to catch the train, but maybe we can get a pizza or something. You hungry?”
“Starved,” she said, but not so much for food.
“Come on, then.” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her through the back rooms and out the rear door. A waiter, a young kid likely still in his teens, was leaning against the wall, smoking.
“Have a good night,” Bill called to the kid and headed toward the busy New York streets.
“Hey, Padre,” the kid called.
When they turned, Lottie saw the young man was walking toward them. He flicked the cigarette to the ground.
Uncertain of what to expect, she stepped closer to Bill, who, thankfully, was still holding her hand.
“Yeah?” Bill asked.
“I’ve heard you here before. I like your act. Makes me laugh.” The kid shuffled awkwardly. A sleeve of tattoo’s covered both arms.
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” But Bill didn’t walk away. Just stood there waiting. “What’s your name?”
“Kyle. Yeah, so I liked what you said about your dad being a real ass, oh I beg your pardon, I mean a real pain. I like how you said you didn’t let him make you the man you are.” He started nodding. “See, my pops is like that, too. Always said I’d amount to nuttin’. But I was thinking about what you said, last time you were here, and I wanted to let you know I registered for my GED. I wanted to say thanks.”
Bill dropped her hand and stepped toward the kid. He put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder and said. “For what it’s worth, in case no one has said it, I’m proud of you. You’re making your own destiny. Good for you.” He then stuck out his hand and waited for the kid to take it. They shook hands, not saying anything, but Lottie knew something was passing between them. She could feel it. Like she could feel the energy come off him when he stepped off the stage.
“You need anything. You run into any bumps, you come see me.” Bill dug into his back pocket and pulled out his card. “You call and I can come to you.”
“You’d do that for me?” He took the card from Bill and stared at him, mouth agape.
“Yeah, of course I would. You’re worth it.” He clapped Kyle on the shoulder again. “I’ll be back in a month. I look forward to hearing how it’s going.”
“You got it, Padre.”
“You can call me Bill.”
He wanted to take her hand again or sling his arm over her shoulder. He could use the dangers of the city as an excuse, but Lotts was smart and she’d see right through that. He gave her a sideways glance, wondering if he needed an excuse to touch her. She’d been pretty responsive to the kiss.
Yeah. The kiss.
He wasn’t sure what happened there. One minute he was on top of the world and all he could think about was how beautiful she was while she told him how much she loved his set, and the next minute he was taking a taste of Charlotte Lucas and floating out of this world.
“Pizza sounds okay?” He glanced at his watch. “We’ll have to take it on the train. I hope you don’t mind. But the last one leaves soon.”
“Is it that late?”
Bill nodded. “So listen, about tonight.”
Lottie stopped walking, dead middle of the sidewalk and crossed her arms. “I can’t wait to hear this.”
“I haven’t said anything to anyone about this. Not a soul. You are the first, and for now I’d like to keep it that way.”
She relaxed her stand, tilting her head to study him. “It’s true that you don’t want a church, isn’t it?”
He waved for her to start walking. “We need to walk and talk or else we’ll be taking an Uber or cab to Connecticut.”
They fell into and easy stride.
“But it’s true. Right?”
Bill thought about his response. “Honestly, I dunno. Most days I think there’s nothing I’d change. Then Lady Catherine comes in and holds this great church over my head, a huge church here in the city, and I don’t find steps that might make that happen.”
Lottie said nothing.
“But then I come here and do this, and I can’t imagine not doing it.” He stuffed his hands in his front pockets, hunching his shoulders.
“When you think of this big church here in the city, what do you think about doing here?”
“I want to reach kids like Kyle back there.”
“Which you did through comedy. Why can’t things stay the way they are? For now at least?”
Bill had a dozen responses to that question. Answers that he’d gone over a thousand times a day at least since Lady Catherine and her family had shown up. “Because as much as I enjoy teaching, it’s not going to last much longer. The elders there have specific ideas about their staff, and to keep teaching I’d have to relocate to another seminary. I don’t want to move. I love working for the Bennet sisters, but who knows how long that will last.” He pointed to her. “Don’t tell them I said that.”
“Sounds like you have some big decisions to make and changes on the horizon.”
They’d arrived at Grand Central, but Bill pulled her into a little pizza shop half a block away. “Everything in the dining area will be closed, but this little gem is always open.” There was a line reaching the door.
“I have all meat, all veggie, and pepperoni,” shouted the man behind the counter. “If you want a custom, step aside. People got trains to catch.”
Bill tossed up his hand and yelled, “Meat here.” He turned to Lottie. “I hope that’s okay. I know you like most of the stuff. You gotta get ’em while the gettin’s good or else you’re waiting for the next batch and missing your train.”
“You know this from experience?” She moved to a large fridge, touching the glass door. “Water?”
Bill nodded and paid for everything. Lottie grabbed the bottles, napkins, and some packages of chili peppers, and together they walked back to the station. They had less than ten minutes to catch their train, so they hurried through the station to their terminal.
It was right before exiting the main hall when Lottie saw it, and it stopped her dead in her tracks. “Bill. Oh My God. Look!” She was pointing to a not yet opened newsstand, and he followed the line of her finger, his eyes going wide when he saw what she was saying. He thrust the pizza at her.
“Here, take this and get to the train. I’m going to grab one and meet you there.”
“I can wait.”
“Just in case, here are my keys.” He tucked them into her front pocket and nearly got distracted by the simple touch of his hands on her hip.
“Hurry,” she whispered.
He dashed off across the hall, and she made her way to the correct track. Normally, it wouldn’t take but a moment for someone to grab a magazine. There were little to no lines this late in the night—or should she say early morning. But the vendor was setting up and getting the paper out, not yet open. He might not be so inclined to stop what he was doing and sell it.
The train was already at the track and waiting area was empty. A ticket agent was walking alongside the train.
“Come on,” she whispered more as a prayer then a command.
“Hartford?” The agent asked.
“Yeah, I have a friend coming.”
“Well, he better hurry.” He helped her step up.
Inside Lottie found a seat that could accommodate them both, but more importantly gave her access to see if he was coming. Dropping the food and drinks on the bench she lowered the window and stuck her head out. The train’s horn let out two short blasts. Bill was running down the terminal and waved when he saw her. The ticket agent shouted something, and Bill jumped on the train several cars ahead. Lottie sank back on the seat, nearly sitting on the pizza. A few minutes later Bill stood over her, winded but smiling.
“I got it. He wasn’t ready to sell it, but I threw a ten at him and told him to keep the change. He really didn’t have a choice. I’m sure glad you didn’t have to go home alone.”
“Me too. Show me the magazine. What does it say?” She reached for the tabloid.
“I didn’t get to read it yet,” Bill snarked. He put the pizza box between them then spread Mrs. Bennet’s current employer’s paper—Exposed—out before them.
The headline read: “William Darcy destroys small-town business and love.” The photo was a grainy one taken of him at the park get-together.
“That’s odd. I don’t remember a cameraman, but this was taken right after Mrs. Bennet accosted him. See, he’s still holding the cupcake wrapper.”
Bill strained to see the picture. “From the angle the camera must have been down low. I wonder if she had it in her purse?”
They shared a worried look.
“Wow, if she did, that’s impressive. She really kept her wits about her. I thought she was surprised to see him, but apparently not so much that she didn’t get this shot.”
Bill shook his head. “This isn’t going to go over well at all.” He ran his finger across the paper, showing her a line in Mrs. Bennet’s article that touted Darcy as the man who enjoyed smashing hopes and dreams and then went into length about how he was not his father’s son.
Bill knew Darcy wouldn’t care so much about the article. But more about how it came to be, considering the author was the mother of the sisters he was trying to automate—it was suspicious. But the real wound would have come with the comparison. Mrs. Bennet had found Darcy’s Achilles heel and sliced it good.
LADY CATHERINE HAD them all gathered in the conference room. She was standing rigid before them, arms crossed and lips pressed into a thin line. She hadn’t said anything since she requested their presence via a three-word email Sunday afternoon. MONDAY. 8AM. MANDATORY.
Elizabeth was ever thankful to Lottie and Bill for showing her and Jane the Exposed headline and having the day to stalk the results on the web while developing a reaction plan. It gave Elizabeth the slightest bit of hope that she had an edge.
A little, teeny, tiny, edge.
Never mind that she avoided Darcy's gaze. Never mind that her mother’s article was written with the tone similar to a hate letter rather than responsible journalism.
The Bourgh harrumphed and glowered at Elizabeth, brows furrowed.
“Why ever would your mother do such a thing?” Her tone shook with bridled anger.
How does one answer that question? Why ever does her mother do any of the things she does?
“It’s her job—”
“Quiet,” Lady Catherine snapped. “Anne, tell us the fallout.”
Elizabeth cut her eyes to Jane, who was staring with such intensity at the pad of paper before her. She’d spent the weekend getting to know Darcy’s friend Chaz better. Showing him around town, going to the movies. Now he stood alongside the wall next to Darcy. His pleasant face was devoid of any emotion.
Darcy was the same. Maybe even worse, because she didn’t have a benchmark to go from. She had this rigid closed off man who possibly had been teasing her at the party in the park.
“Anne,” Lady Catherine barked.
Anne bolted upright from her seat and snatched a sheet of paper from the table as she rose. “Ah, well it’s kinda hard to get solid numbers because Jane released her videos and then a few days later this article followed, so some lag was expected. Though I’d like to point out that the videos are gaining momentum.”
“The numbers, Anne.” Lady Catherine’s tone was laced with frustration. Elizabeth wouldn’t have been surprised if she stomped her foot for added emphasis.
“Yes, the numbers. We launched the online sign-up system, which included the questionnaire, and released Jane’s video and saw an increase of over sixty percent to what was done last year—”
“In two days, you say? There were more sign-ups in two days than in the entire year?” Lady Catherine stared down her nose at Elizabeth and then Jane.
“Yes, Mother. But in all fairness, the increase is likely due to Jane’s video and the fact that we let people register for free that first day. Every time we release a video—we’ve done two—we see a boost.”
Jane smiled slightly and continued to stare at the paper.
“Automation has been a success so far,” Lady Catherine said smugly.
“Hang on.” Elizabeth leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “What Jane’s done is social media. It has nothing to do with automation. The questionnaire being online helps, but again, this isn’t automation. If this is what you want, then I have no problem with it. I do have a problem with the matching happening via a computer program and with little human factor. I do have a problem with people doing cursory glances at a picture and a phrase like ‘Loves dogs’, and deciding to take a chance’.”
“Well, if your mother keeps up her work it will all be irrelevant anyway.” The Bourgh slapped her hand against the table. “What happened after the article, Anne?”
Anne cleared her voice and shot Elizabeth a pained expression. “We have over fifty percent of the applicants withdrawing. We have fielded nearly a thousand emails wanting to know if we are closing our doors. Some are from those that paid the registration fee and would like to know if they will get their money back.”
Though she still felt smug over the point about automation, Elizabeth’s embarrassment superseded that. She glanced at Darcy, who was staring directly at her. They held eye contact for a second before Elizabeth glanced away. When she looked back briefly, he was still watching her.
“We can put out a statement that we’re making some system changes through the guidance of Mr. Darcy, but that we have no immediate plans of closing.” She hoped saying it would make it so. written. Slander is spoken.e-udents? This is confusingack to the original story'lt to bite on.ere anyway.d women. n. It start
“That’s wonderful, but what about my nephew? What shall we do about his reputation and good name your mother felt so comfortable libeling. I should sue that woman. Tear her apart—”
“We should ignore it. It’s not the first or the last time I’ve been in papers such as Exposed. Bingley and I have talked about a lawsuit and that simply doesn’t appeal to me at this time,” Darcy said stepping from the wall. He looked to the Colonel. “With Henry stepping in to take on more of a role, the focus will come off me eventually.” He glanced at his cousin, and Elizabeth leaned forward because she swore she saw him smile at Henry. Yes, a small slight lift of the lips but a smile nonetheless, and well…it was becoming. And how many words had he just spoken? Incredible.
“Ignore it? That’s a fine approach indeed,” The Bourgh bit out sarcastically. “Fine. Do it your way.” She stepped toward the sisters. “But know that any more nonsense like this, and I’m pulling out. I can’t afford not to do it. Do you understand me?”
Elizabeth saw Bill straighten and watched the group with a wide-eyed expression. Something was amiss.
“Do you? Do you, I ask?’ Lady Catherine shouted.
“Yes, ma’am,” answered Jane.
Elizabeth wondered how much plasma it would take to sell combined with a second mortgage to make The Bourgh go away. And her minions, too. Okay, Anne could stay. Maybe even Henry. And Jane seemed to really like Bingley, going all soft and smiley when he was around. Which meant Darcy had to stay as well. Well, poop.
“Elizabeth?” Lady Catherine leaned over her and stared down, breathing rapidly. Elizabeth imagined smoke coming from her nostrils.
“Do you understand me?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Yes, I understand why you are upset, but I don’t understand why you think I can control an outside person, anymore than I can control you. I am not responsible for what my mother does, nor am I responsible for any past experience she—or anyone else for that matter—has had with Mr. Darcy. Can you understand that? We will get bad press. We will fail at certain matches. These are inevitable.” She wanted to say more but didn’t want to press her luck. She needed the new status quo to stay while she worked on finding the funds to buy out The Bourgh. Having her stay as an investor didn’t seem like the best course of action at this point.
Lady Catherine glared at Elizabeth, who, having grown up with the tyrannical mother who employed similar tactics, was not affected. Well, that and Elizabeth was so ticked off at this whole mess not much penetrated her brain except the anger.
Lady Catherine slapped her hand on the table once more before swiveling on her heel and storming from the room.
They all remained quiet, waiting for the sound of the buildings front door to slam. After it came, a collective sigh came from the Meryton staff.
Bill stood. “I hate to go, but I have a class. I also have my interviews scheduled with Wentworth and”—he regarded his notes—“and Miss Elliot.”
“Lydia has a full schedule of people coming in to film their intro videos, and I have my interviews scheduled as well.” Elizabeth looked at her schedule.
“Why can’t they make a video from home and send it in? With Skype and other technology, we can move this company from only servicing the tri-state area to maybe the eastern seaboard?” Anne interjected.
Elizabeth shook her head. “Don’t think that we haven’t talked about all those options when we opened. We have, but some of these people need a little guidance. Can you imagine the video made by the novice? Some of these people are socially awkward. When they come in-house, Lydia has a way of making them relax, funnily enough, and we get some really charming and authentic videos.” She looked at Bill. “Speaking of which, if you are serious about your application, then you’ll need to do a video.”
“Great. Because I put you on the schedule.” She handed him a slip of paper with the date and time. “You’ll be after Lottie.” Elizabeth smiled at him. She didn’t question what had happened to them last Saturday nor did she tease him about any possible connection. No, with Bill, he needed time to process everything as it was happening. Though the blush that colored Lottie’s cheeks every time Elizabeth asked her about their trip into the city was enough of a response to insure Elizabeth knew they’d taken a step in the direction of lovers.
“Okay, I’ll be here. You say Lotts is coming in as well?” He brushed his hair from his eyes.
“Well, all right then. I suppose I’ll see you later.” He gave a small wave and left the room.
Anne cleared her throat. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I do have a program that looks at the answers to the questionnaire and compares that to other questionnaires. Bill and Lottie’s didn’t match. They don’t come out as a good option for one another.”
Elizabeth was speechless. Just rethinking about what Anne said made her blood begin to boil. “Anne, I would hope your mother and Mr. Darcy”—she gave him an angry glare—“would know that matching keywords or phrases used to fill out a form does not a marriage make. Neither Bill nor Lottie have taken the personality profile. Neither have talked with me or a spiritual counselor—we will need to find someone else for Bill—and because none of that has been done, a true assessment cannot be made. This isn’t about algorithms.”
“But it could be,” Darcy said and moved to stand before her. “You could take a fair amount of the guesswork out. Use your manpower for the nitty-gritty stuff. Other companies have tried and succeeded with this model.”
Elizabeth stared up at him. “But we don’t want to be like other companies. We want to be different. Better. We want them to feel as if this happened naturally and not by a computer. That’s why we’ve limited the amount of computer work for them.”
He nodded as if this was the first time he’d heard this. “But where does growth come?”
Well, he had her there, because her answer in the past had been word of mouth. Yet that was proving to not be the case. For them, growth was likely due more to luck than anything.
She had no answer and thankfully was rescued by Anne.
“Jane. I think the best thing we can do it push another entry on her vlog. You still want to stick with the same outline we created a few days ago?”
Elizabeth tore her attention from Darcy in time to see her sister glance to Bingley before turning to Elizabeth.
“Yes, I suppose. That’s the plan.” She shrugged as if to say, it’s business.
“Good. So we have your intro ‘I’m looking for a man’ video, and then the ‘Jane in the wild mingling’ video. This one is ‘Jane selects a date’ video. We’ll still shoot it to hide your identity until we’re ready to release that. Not that it’s too hard to figure out. If anyone with half a brain were to search the website they’d figure it out.”
“Great,” Jane said with a voice lacking so much enthusiasm Elizabeth thought her sister might start to cry. “If you’ll excuse me.” Jane stood and rushed from the room.
Elizabeth knew her sister was upset and was itching to get to her.
“If you’ll excuse me as well,” Elizabeth said. She had to push her chair back since Darcy was still very close. If she stood they’d come face to face with little space between them. She gave everyone a quick smile, skirted Darcy, and then made for the door. He caught up with her just outside it.
“Pardon, Miss Bennet.”
She turned to face him, wishing she could ignore him and get to Jane.
“I was wondering if you were planning on running tomorrow morning?”
Of course she was planning on running. How else would she manage this stress? With her run schedule off by a day thanks to this mandatory meeting, Elizabeth was most decidedly running tomorrow.
“I play it by ear. See how the day starts, but more than likely, yes.” She couldn’t help feeling suspicious.
“Would you meet me at the cross-section from your house and town. Before you start your run? Six?”
Elizabeth slammed her mouth shut. “How do you know where I live?”
“Anne showed me once when we drove by. So six works?”
He had a pleasant face actually. Rugged, like he could be a lumberjack or something other than the corporate jackass he was. Normally she found his eyes cold, distant, but today she could see what might be attractive about them. What had she read once? Something about “meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.” Certainly that applied to men. Men like Darcy. What was the saying?
“You have lovely eyes,” Darcy mumbled.
Elizabeth felt her cheeks alight with heat. What a coincidence they were thinking much the same thing?
Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, six is fine.”
He studied her as she did him. Then after a quick nod returned to the conference room.
Elizabeth rushed down the hall and to her office as quickly as she could. She found Jane at her desk, staring out the window.
“Come on,” she said and pulled her sister up. “We’re getting out of here for a bit.”
She pulled Jane behind her as she made her way out of the office with only a “we’ll be back” to Kitty.
Elizabeth waited until they were at least half a block away before she started in on her sister.
“What’s wrong?” She bumped Jane’s shoulder with her own.
Jane shook her head.
“Come on, Jane. Something is bothering you.”
Jane sighed and stopped walking. “It’s all very overwhelming, isn’t it? And then Mother writing that article. Do you know she asked Chaz how much he made annually and that she was unsure about him because of his choice of friends.”
“Well, she might have something there. Darcy is a…stiff. I suppose.”
“Reserved? Isn’t that a better descriptor?” Jane clasped her hands to her face. “Oh, Lizzy. It was awful. She asked all sorts of personal questions, and Chaz just smiled and answered until I could think of an excuse to leave. One time she followed us. I’m surprised he even went to the movies with me the next night, much less stayed the rest of the afternoon at the park.”
“Is that why you’re upset? Because of Mother?” Lizzy knew her sister well enough to know there had to be more. Mother embarrassing them was nothing new.
“Don’t you think Chaz is really sweet?” Jane smiled from between her hands.
“From what I know, yes. But I’m just beginning to know him, so I shall reserve judgment. Come on, let’s get something to eat.” She tugged her sister’s elbow, and they started to walk again.
“Reserve judgment? Like you have for Darcy?” Jane linked her arm through Elizabeth’s.
“What are you talking about? Darcy has made his personality known from the beginning. Didn’t I mention that I overheard him tell Henry this place was too country for him?” She pulled Jane close. “Did I also not tell you that when asked if he thought we were pretty, he said I was not pretty enough to tempt him? Or nice enough.”
Jane gasped then laughed. “Well, you haven’t been very friendly.”
“Jane!” Elizabeth nudged her again. “Why should he even remark about our appearance after a business meeting? We aren’t matching him or worse—can you imagine—planning on dating him. No, William Darcy is a snob of the first order, and I think there is little reserve left to see if that account should not be true. He continues to prove it repeatedly. And now I have to run with him tomorrow.” She shook her head.
“Do try and be nice.” Jane squeezed her arm with her own.
“They are not guests, Jane. They are here to destroy us,” Elizabeth said using her best outer space voice.
“They are here to do a job, and then they will leave. I am here to do a job as well, and that includes those videos.”
“Do you regret making them?” Elizabeth asked in a lowered voice as if Jane might divulge her true feelings if she were allowed to whisper them.
“They are serving a purpose, so no. How could I?”
But the lack of eye contact and certainty in her words indicated to Elizabeth that those sentiments might not be true.
“You could always stop them. You’ve just started, so it’s not like you’re halfway through and deciding it quit. We could do one more and end them. Do a wrap-up one.”
They’d reached Lottie’s café, and Elizabeth held open the door for Jane.
“No, I made a commitment to this. I’ll see it through.” This time she said it with more determination.
Elizabeth stopped her sister from going further into the café by grabbing her hand. “You can tell me anything. You know. Anything. You don’t always have to bundle it up.”
Jane swatted at Elizabeth and pulled her hand free. “Stop. You’re being silly. I’m not bundling anything. Everything is fine. How's that table?” Jane moved to the one by the window.
“Sure,” was all Elizabeth could answer. Experience had taught her Jane was done with the conversation. “I’ll go place the order, you want the usual?”
Jane nodded and took a seat.
At the counter Elizabeth found Lottie staring out the window, her phone in her hand, a startled expression on her face.
“Lottie? Are you okay?” she asked.
Lottie didn’t move.
Elizabeth clapped loudly. “Hello! You in there?”
Lottie jerked and then blinked several times.
“Oh my God, Lizzy, you are not going to believe what just happened!” Her blank expression quickly transformed into one of amazement.
“I take it this is something good.”
Lottie rushed from around the counter and came to stand before her. In a lowered voice she said, “John Thorpe just offered to mass produce a line of my themed cupcakes and distribute them in the tri-state area.”
“This is very good!” Elizabeth said and pulled her friend into a hug. “Congratulations! Come on, come tell Jane. When is this happening?”
“Soon I guess. He’s coming up tomorrow to work out the deal. I’m going to need a lawyer, and maybe I should get a power suit or something.” Lottie returned her hug. “Me, little Lottie Lucas is going into expanded distribution. However did I get so lucky? I can’t wait to tell Bill.”
ELIZABETH ROSE EARLY, dressed for her run, and did her warm-up stretch outside her house. Though the air was cool, there was a moisture clinging to it that boded of impending hot days and, in Elizabeth’s case, frizzy hair. She cut across Mr. Yelvington’s pasture, the dew collecting on her shoes and ankles and forcing her forward.
Why ever did he want to run with her? Would they try and talk? Ignore each other? However this went down, it was going to be awkward. Painfully so.
Turning the corner she saw him waiting across the street, stretching his legs. She wanted to turn around and go back home. But face him now or face him later, it was inevitable that he be a part of her day somehow. But must he be a part of the bits that were her favorite? Running was a cathartic, vent-her-hate process. He was going to disrupt her groove, for sure.
She didn’t call out a greeting or wave, just crossed the road to where he waited. Instantly, she felt his scrutiny.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy,” she said.
“Miss Bennet.” He nodded briskly.
Perhaps if they developed a bit of familiarity or cordiality, this wouldn’t all be so awful.
“You can call me…” She didn’t want him to call her Lizzy, which was too familiar and reserved for her friends. “Elizabeth. We do work together and need not stay so formal.”
He switched to stretching the other leg. “It’s because we work together that I call you Miss Bennet and will continue to do so.” He pulled his leg back, grasping it at the heel, the powerful muscles contracting and bulging.
Beauty really was skin deep, because at first glance William Darcy was…well…striking. Handsome even. He was powerfully built and with business acumen. But his arrogance and conceit were nauseating. And infuriating.
“I suppose there is little traffic,” he mumbled while surveying the area.
“There will be some delivery trucks, some of the farmers, but the town begins to pick up after eight.” She began her own stretches and wondered if she dragged this portion out would he go on without her.
He moved onto his arms, bending one and then the other behind his head. “I’m interested in knowing which direction is your path. I want to make sure that on this run our paths don’t cross or if they have to cross it will be minimally.”
“Ah.” Wait, what? They weren’t running together. Fantastic. Right? “I follow this road down to the lake, which I run counterclockwise twice, sometimes three times. I return back to this road and go down about three blocks before I turn left, across two blocks, turn up and that’s the main road.”
“Is it three blocks or not?”
“I’m sorry? Is what three blocks?” She readjusted her ponytail. Tugging it tightly, envisioning his neck.
“Do you go down three blocks? You said about. I was hoping for something more specific.” He was now stretching his arms across his chest.
“I’m not sure. I’ve been running this forever and the specifics have blurred. I turn at Mrs. Phillips’ house, which I believe might be three blocks from the lake.”
“If I go over two blocks and then down will I come to the lake from the other side?”
She nodded. “You know, most people—new to an area—might drive the path they intend to run. That’s also a good way to measure the distance.”
His response was to stare at her like she’d suggested something archaic and beneath him. Gak! She really didn’t like this guy. His life must be so easy. Filled with people doing whatever he said. Like her, meeting him here. He didn’t need to drive by and map out his path. He had her. Another lackey to do the job. Being manipulated by people in any fashion only resulted in her shutting them out, resolved to never offer a second chance, and firmed her opinion of said person. Darcy had joined that lot.
“Do you need me for anything else or might I start my run?” She tugged her ear buds from her pockets, thankful she’d brought them. She’d considered leaving them at home for worry it might make her appear rude if he had expected to talk.
Boy, was she a big dumb dodo.
He scanned the area again. “And you’re quite certain this area is safe?”
What was he afraid of? Meryton was basically a sleepy farm town.
She narrowed her eyes. “Quite certain. There’s nothing to worry about. I assure you that even the wild life would not find you appealing.” It went from her thoughts to her mouth in two point zero seconds. Frustration did that to her.
“I know, for someone like you, the country might be a foreign, unappealing place. But please do remember this is my home and I love it here. Enjoy your run.” She pushed in the ear bud while crossing over to her path. If she did see him around the lake, it would take a huge amount of discipline to not trip him.
She set out down the road, loud metal music blasting, and didn’t glance back.
They crossed paths twice, but Elizabeth treated him like she would any other runner. She queued to the right and was pleased to find he did the same. She wanted to remark upon that, how he managed to get it correct. But that was something friends did, and she and Darcy were decidedly not friends.
She cut a block off her path, anxious to get to Lottie’s before him, if that was his plan, but stopped short when she noticed the FOR SALE sign in the window of the corner building. Mrs. Gardner’s old house turned apartments with an antique store and small café was empty? When had that happened, and more importantly, how had she missed it? As puzzled as she was about the vacancy, she was more excited about it. Lottie had been talking for the last few years about getting her own place, and this was prime real estate.
Elizabeth took a photo of the sign with her phone before running to Lottie’s.
Darcy was already there, but she ignored him, instead rushing up to Lottie.
“Hey, check this out.” She showed her the phone.
Lottie, who was pouring coffee, said, “It’s a for sale sign.”
“Right. At Mrs. Gardner’s house.” Elizabeth smiled and wanted to squeal. If they were in private or the back of the café, maybe. But not at the front.
Coffee sloshed from the carafe as Lottie put it on the table with a thump. “Give me that.” She grabbed the phone and stared. “Is this for real?”
“Totally. I was as surprised as you. Where did the Gardners go?”
Lottie shook her head.
“I’ll ask Mom. She’ll know. But” —Elizabeth grimaced excitedly. Eyes going large— “you should call them today.”
Lottie’s face lit up then fell. “I can’t. With Dad fading into retirement, who would run this place? I can’t start up my own and compete.”
Elizabeth took her phone back. “I’d like to know if you’re okay with doing things his way for the rest of his life? Your dad will probably put in his will about not changing the menu or business practice.”
“True,” she said. “But this café employs my brother and sister as well, and I have to think of that.”
“Who can step up and take some responsibility. If you’re worried about competition, I doubt your bakery would affect them too much,” Elizabeth said then pointed to the coffee carafe. “Can I get a large one of those, please? Why don’t I call and see what they are asking for it. It’s not a commitment. Just me being nosy. That okay with you?”
Lottie stared at the counter, swirling the coffee in the pot briefly before answering. “Yeah, I guess there’s no harm in that.”
“Right. No harm. Just me being nosy. I’ll call you after I’ve done it.” She took the coffee cup Lottie had filled for her.
“I have that meeting with John Thorpe at one today. So call before then.”
Pointing her index finger at her friend, she said. “Deal.”
They said their goodbyes, and when Elizabeth turned to leave, she saw Darcy sitting at a table reading the paper. Should she ask about his run? Was his path sufficient? Did she really care? No, and why waste the energy on a conversation that was sure to leave her either perplexed or frustrated. Maybe both.
He was such an odd, arrogant man.
She left without a word.
Elizabeth hadn’t attended this many meetings since they started the company. Why did they need to talk about the schedule? Couldn’t they see in the online time management program they used what needed to be done, who was assigned to do it, and put together the concept that the checked box meant complete!
She waited for someone to speak. Chaz Bingley was once again present, and Elizabeth found this odd.
“Pardon, and no offense, Mr. Bingley, but why are you here?” Of course she had to ask.
“He’s my lawyer.” Darcy said while shifting through papers and not bothering with eye contact.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. We have a company lawyer. Should he be present?”
Jane elbowed her in the side.
Darcy sighed. “Mr. Bingley is my lawyer for my businesses. He’s here because we have matters to attend to.”
“But none of that is Meryton business? Correct?” She sat back in the office chair and met his gaze.
He arched a brow. “Not yet, but it might, which is why he’s here.” He dismissed her as soon as the words were out, going back to shuffling papers.
He handed them to Anne. “Why don’t you explain this?”
If Elizabeth hadn’t been watching the exchange, she would have missed Anne’s hesitancy. Reluctantly, she took the papers, flipped them over, and put them on the desk.
“Ah, well,” she began. “I have this nifty program that searches for common interest and compatibility between interested parties. It’s ‘very similar’ to what the online dating companies use.” The air quotes Anne used told Elizabeth that it was ‘exactly’ like what the online companies used.
“And?” Elizabeth asked.
Anne wiped her hand across her brow. “Well, according to the program, you’re making incorrect and ultimately unsuccessful matches.”
Jane gasped, her attention on Elizabeth, eyes wide.
“I beg your pardon? And by chance, did you run all our clients or just the recent ones?”
Anne inspected the papers before her, playing with the corner on one of the pages.
“I see. And this all-knowing, see-in-the-future program of yours—it found more of my matches were poorly done than there were good ones, I assume.”
Elizabeth looked at Darcy, then Bingley, and lastly Anne. “You’re program is stupid. There is no possible way to ask people enough questions of the right sort to get a proper sample. When people sit down to fill out questionnaires, they worry about the impression the answers will give. Many exaggerate—innocently of course. Some, though, not as much. When filling out a questionnaire that offers choices, people are going to pick the one they think they’d like the best, not what they do like the best. When candidates are interviewed, much more is garnered. Body language is taken into account. Does your program do that? Can it tell if someone is lying?”
Anne shook her head. “Though there are questions built in to find inconsistencies.”
“With all due respect, Anne, regardless of what your program shows, our results speak for themselves. We have a high success rate. Higher than the online companies. How can you argue with that?”
Anne glanced at Darcy. “How about you take this one?”
What infuriated Elizabeth more was that obviously they’d previously held this conversations without her or Jane. She couldn’t help but see it as an us versus them situation. It clearly was.
Darcy leaned back against the wall, his favorite position. She wondered if he chose that as a way to appear relaxed, should she tell him it didn't work? That, frankly, he appeared pained to be in this situation.
“Let’s use Mr. Collins as an example, if I may?” He waited for Bill's permission, who nodded his agreement. “You’ve paired him with a few women, but one on your list is an obvious poor fit.”
“According to the computer,” Anne added.
Elizabeth knew exactly which one they were referring to. “The computer or perhaps a larger force doesn’t approve?” Lottie would never be The Bourgh’s pick for Bill. No, Lottie wasn’t pliable enough for the likes of his great surrogate mother.
“The computer. On religion, family, and even hobbies they differ. They don’t have much in common. As a comparison we ran hers, and the program shows she is more suited for someone, shall we say, with a penchant for business. A strong acumen for success.” Anne stared at the paper, not looking up once.
Elizabeth glanced at her watch and turned to Bill. Lydia had gotten her hands on him prior to filming his video and he now sported a trending combed back hairstyle that flattered him. The jagged scar down his forehead only added to his appeal, kind of a bad boy quality. She had to reset her bearings before speaking. This new Bill was a hottie, and she could see what Lottie found attractive. “They’re talking about you and Lottie. I have Lottie down as a potential match for you.”
He blinked at her in surprise.
“But they are saying you two don’t match. That you are too opposite. Their computer shows she’s better suited for someone like, say, John Thorpe. Who, funny enough, is meeting with Lottie today about her cupcakes.”
“Lottie has gone through all the steps of the profile?” Bill asked in a low voice as he rested one hand on his knee, leaned forward.
Elizabeth nodded. She’d known Bill and Lottie her entire life. Shared experiences and dreams with them, something that could never be programmed into a computer. She knew Lottie’s father could be single-minded and knew nothing about his daughter’s secret wish to own a bakery. But Bill did. How does one enter that into a program? She was also aware Bill had made poor choices as a kid, several resulting in time spent with other poor decision-makers at juvie. As a result of this, he second-guessed his every move and—Elizabeth was willing to wager—thought he wasn’t good enough for any wife, much less his dear friend Lotts.
“If you were feeling like you might need something, say a cupcake or coffee, you could take this to her for me and save me the trip.” Elizabeth slid a folded piece of paper to Bill.
“What’s this?” He picked it up and peeked inside. His jerked his eyes back to hers. “So they did move. I’m not surprised. And this price. It’s reasonable.”
“High end of reasonable.” She met his gaze knowing he was likely thinking the same as she. Lottie’s dream could come true. Here was opportunity. “Especially if she gets this deal from the sophisticated baker man Mr. Darcy and Anne think is so well suited for Lottie.”
Bill snorted, gripped the paper in his hand, and stood. “Anyone want to place an order? I think I’ll go hang out at the café and listen to what this dude has to offer. Iced coffee, Jane? Anne?” he asked backing out the door.
But he didn’t wait for anyone to place an actual order, obviously in a hurry to get to Lottie.
Elizabeth pushed back from the conference table and stood. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t take the advice of your program too seriously. Human factor and all that.” She turned to her sister. “I see you have another video planned. You need any help?”
Jane shook her head. “No, they’re all doing far better than I could have ever anticipated.” She blushed becomingly and looked away from the group, her concentration on Elizabeth. “It’s grown into quite a…monster. Anne’s scheduled me for some chats and Q and As. I’m going to meet a potential match in a week or so.” Though she sounded nonchalant about the entire situation, her eyes told a different story. If Elizabeth didn’t know her sister so well, she would never guess the videos were making her uncomfortable. She needed a private moment with Jane, desperately. If she wasn’t mistaken, Jane was showing a serious interest in Darcy’s friend Bingley—er, Chaz—and he in her. Maybe they could use him as a candidate for Jane’s videos?
Elizabeth’s mind raced with options, but she had to stop herself. One fire at a time, and first she had to prove Darcy and his stupid computer wrong. If it was the last thing she did.
Darcy pushed from the wall and came to stand before her. He crossed his arms behind his back, and she thought it might be possible that a slight smile teased at his lips. Or maybe a smirk. She was going with smirk. That suited him better.
“You may be right about Bill and your friend. You do have a personal connection with them. But that does not mean you are right about the others, and according to Anne’s software, you are off by sixty percent. Her program has pulled others as better matches.” He spoke quietly so it was hard to know if he was challenging her.
She studied his face and stepped closer. “It comes as no surprise, Mr. Darcy, that a man such as you, one who seems very black-and-white, would neither be married nor understand the nuances that come with building a long-term lasting relationship. This can never be replicated by a computer program.”
He appeared to now be studying her face, and his lips did hitch upward slightly. “You may be correct about my lack of personal knowledge, but you cannot discount my experience in business, which is what this is.”
Elizabeth wanted to stomp on his insole. “This is about love and having a happy life. Why is that hard to grasp?”
“Because I’ve been tasked with handling my aunt’s business and financial issues. There is no luxury for, shall we say, fluff in my world.”
She had to grind her teeth to bite back the words.
“You will excuse me,” he said with a nod then turned and left her standing there.
She spun on Jane, ready to explode with anger.
“Lizzy, why don’t you come with me to see the videos?” Jane took her by the arms and steered her from the room.
Oh, yeah. William Darcy, jerkface extraordinaire, was going down.
BILL COULDN’T BELIEVE the audacity of this toolbag. If the man wanted to buy a line of cupcakes from Lotts, then why was he going heavy on the flirting? Did he think she was so easily wooed? Obviously he’d read a book on hot marketing tips and was applying everything he knew toward Lottie. And calling her Charlotte made Bill want put him in a sleep hold for an extended time.
Though he’d arrive after Thorpe, Lottie had allowed him to stay and listen to the pitch. He’d been impressed at first. Wide tri-state reach, with over a hundred bakeries, a marketing budget with a carefully outlined strategy, social media blast, and a clever branding tool.
Yeah, Bill was hung up on the branding tool. The tool with a tool. He snickered, and Lottie frowned at him. Shaking his head, he hoped she couldn’t read his mind. Not that she could read minds, but she knew him really well. She’d probably interpreted his snicker correctly.
“What do you say, Charlotte? Ready to grab onto success? Let John the Thorpedo rocket you into success and fortune?” He took her hand into his, and Bill wanted to shove his proposal down his throat.
“Oh, well, I need some time to think it all over. It’s so exciting that I’m sure I haven’t processed a fraction of what you said.” She glanced at Bill, and he knew she was seeking his approval. He wasn’t sure he could give it.
He shifted uncomfortably and picked up the proposal from the counter. Not one who liked to avoid his issues, Bill admitted he was jealous. But it was a weird jealous. He knew he had something with Lotts this guy never could, and yeah, all the fawning over her was too much. Not that she didn’t deserve it, but she deserved it with sincerity not this dog-and-pony show. But what really bugged him was the opportunity he was offering her. A chance to make her dreams come true. Recognition of a high order. She would no longer be the girl with a pastry degree from The Culinary Institute of America who worked in the café established several generations ago. She would be a person who made her dreams come true. And he envied her that. Shoot, he wasn’t even sure he knew what his dreams were anymore. Dangling before him was a great church in a fabulous city. It wasn’t Meryton, but not much was. Truth be told, he was spoiled here. Life was far easier and laid back than it could be at a big city church. And would he still do stand-up?
Bill flipped the first page of the proposal back, the words swimming before him. His mind elsewhere. Jeez, he had no business taking a wife, much less engaging in this pretense. What could he offer? Sure, he had a healthy bank account, thanks to his father’s firm rule about tithing, and several strong and good investments Lady Catherine was managing for him. But if he was out his jobs tomorrow, what would he do? He didn’t like to gather dust. As a teen he’d always had one plan in action and was developing another. Now, a grown man who was no longer dependent on a parent who withheld food, love, or basic necessities as a form of child-rearing or punishment, he could do as he pleased. Like make his own dreams come true. If only he could figure out what they were.
Bill glanced up at Lottie. She was laughing at something the Dorkpedo was saying. Bill wanted her to be happy beyond her wildest imagination. He’d even like to have a part in it. He glanced down at the proposal and the image on the paper. There was no way he could support this, and it was going to cause a riff between them.
“You call me, day or night, with any questions. Come into the city and let me take you out, show you around. We can take in a show or do a helicopter ride over the city. Have you ever done one?”
Lottie shook her head.
“They’re amazing. It’s a must-do bucket list thing. Life-changing experience.”
Bill wanted to tell the moron that “Charlotte” was afraid of heights, and she’d be too busy testing out the quality and manufacturing of a vomit bag to experience the changes of her life induced by flying over a city.
For the love of Pete.
Having his mother die when he was in elementary school was life changing. Committing a life to spread God’s word was life changing. How shallow must this man be if flying over a city in a helicopter was life changing?
He turned to find Lottie and Twerpedo staring at him.
“John is leaving. He asked if you had any questions.” She was wringing her hands.
“Thanks for letting me standby and listen. I’m sure I’ll have some after we talk.” That’s right, suit man. Lotts would definitely talk it over with him to the point of nearly beating it to death, but he’d listen to every word. Or as many as he could.
Thorpe scanned Bill from head to toe, clearly assessing him, then turned to Lottie. “I have all the faith that you’ll make the right decision.” He stuck out his hand. “It will be fun working with you.” When she placed her hand in his, he did that double shake thing Bill found annoying, where he clasped her hand tightly between both of his. Even as a pastor, he never partook in double shakes. They felt slimy to him.
Bill held out the proposal with the image on top. “Is this a firm direction on branding or a mere suggestion?”
“Clever, right? Sex sells, Pastor. I’m sure a man of your delicate sensibilities might find that offensive, but I promise it will bring people in.”
Bill glanced at the vector of a buxom woman sitting sideways on a couch, her long legs clad only in high heels were up in the air, her skimpy bikini her only attire. She was moments from biting into a cupcake.
“Sex sells cupcakes? Last time I had one, I was standing outside in the park watching children play kickball.” Incredulous, he considered Lottie. Was she really okay with this? “And for the record, do you think it’s smart practice to use the word deadly and cupcakes in the same sentence?”
“It’s Seven Deadly Sins Cupcake. People aren’t that stupid.” Thorputzo snapped his briefcase closed and glared at Bill. “When they see what’s inside, they’ll be dying to try them. No pun intended.”
But Bill knew he’d intended the pun. He was that kinda guy, a schmuck. The sort to think he was a cool, funny guy.
“I bet you want to use that tag line, don’t you? Seven Deadly Sins Cupcakes by Charlotte. One bite and you’ll be dying for another. You could get real clever with that and market the peanut allergy people. Ask them of they’re willing to gamble their lives for one of these divine cupcakes. Irony for their gluttony.” Bill scratched his chin. “Or maybe it’s greed.” Bill snapped, then turned his ire toward Lottie. “Lottie’s cupcakes, taking out one sinner at a time.”
“Bill. That’s not even funny.” Lottie whispered.
“Yeah, neither is this. It’s a cupcake. Primarily bought for children.” He tossed the proposal on the counter. “I’ll see you out, John.”
After showing John to the door, Bill found Lottie still in the kitchen leaning against the counter holding the proposal.
“How dare you insult him like you did,” she hissed.
You've been reading Meryton Matchmakers Book 1: Lottie Pursues Bill. A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation.
LOTTIE WAS SEETHING. Seething at John, at Bill, and even at herself. She’d gone to a fabulous culinary school, had incredible job offers, and yet came home because she loved this stupid small town. More importantly, she knew even then she loved that stupid pig-headed man staring at her right now, mouth agape.
“What? Wait. His ideas are insupportable. Are you seriously entertaining his deal?” Bill stuck his hands on his hips and stared at her incredulously.
Lottie slapped the paper on the counter and picked up a bowl. She needed to do something productive with her hands lest she strangled him with them. “I might be. I might not. But you don’t get to come in here and act like you have a say. You don’t get to come in here and poke fun at him.”
She shook a pasty whisk at him. “Don’t you ‘Lotts’ me. What if he pulled the deal? Hm, you think of that? Probably not, because it’s not your deal. It’s nothing to you if he pulled it.” She dumped an estimated two cups of confectionary sugar in a bowl. She was surprised all the eggshells didn’t go into the bowl she cracked them so hard. After adding the vanilla and almond milk, she began a furious whisk.
“I’m sorry. He seemed pretty determined to bring you on board. Even flirting with you to clinch the deal.”
Lottie gasped, her manic frosting making came to an immediate halt. “Are you saying he wouldn’t have flirted with me otherwise?”
Bills hands went from his hips to his pockets. “Ah, I’m saying he should try and separate the two.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“Did you see this, Lottie?” He grabbed the proposal from the counter and waved in her face. “Are you serious about this? This is the image you want to put out?”
She set the frosting bowl down with such force she was surprised it didn’t break. Grabbing the papers from his hand she flipped it to the second to last page.
“Look, Billy, see that number? That’s what has my attention. With that amount of money I can buy the Gardners’ building. I can afford to redo the kitchen and storefront. Every quarter I’ll have an income coming in. I won’t have to work here anymore.” She held out her arms and spun in the open space.
“Is it so awful working for your family that you’d sell your recipes and name to the devil?”
“Dear Lord, that’s extreme even for you,” she said sarcastically. “Really? The devil?”
“I don’t mean literally. I mean figuratively. This deal will make you feel awful about yourself. It will fill you with regret.” He ran a hand through his hair, pushing his bangs back.
If she weren’t so mad at him, she’d compliment his new haircut. Instead she picked up the bowl.
“Why does he want to make sure you have no image associated with the recipes? Answer that?”
“Because he’s selling a brand—”
“And you don’t fit that brand, Lotts. He’s asking you to sign a clause saying you won’t associate your image with the cupcakes.” He stared at her, likely waiting for her to agree. But she just couldn’t. He came in with his cute new haircut and sexy swagger, acting like he was her partner or more—her husband. It had filled her with such a longing for it to be true that she hadn’t even heard half of what John had offered.
And yes, not associating her image with her recipes did sting. Hey, she was human. She wanted credit like anyone else. She wanted people to come to her bakery for her cupcakes because they heard about them. But how would they hear about them if no one knew they came from her?
Argh! She hated when Bill had a point, particularly when he was right.
“You want me to be here when you turn him down?” Bill moved to stand next to her. “Because I totally will.”
She stopped whisking again. “You want me to come with you when you tell Lady Catherine to go pound sand, you don’t want to her church?”
He pressed his lips into a thin line before answering. “You know that’s a different situation.”
“Oh, is it? How about you invite her to see your act? Want me to be there when that goes down?” She met his stare and was determined to outlast him.
“Lottie.” He shrugged slowly. “Telling the Thorpedo to suck it is not the same as me telling my family to suck it. Are you going to show your parents this picture?” He pointed to the papers. “Will it fill you with pride to see these cupcakes with this image? Because I’d bet no on both accounts.”
“You think you know me so well.” She tapped the whisk against the bowl.
“Yeah, I know you better than you know yourself.” He smirked.
She dipped the whisk in the bowl, loading its wires with frosting, and then flicked it on him. He was covered in a splatter of white royal icing. He sputtered and blinked then licked a glob from his lip.
“I didn’t see that coming,” he said. He lunged forward, sticking his hand in the bowl and scooping out a small handful and threw it at her. It landed in a clump, clinging to her hair and side of face.
“You’re an idiot, William Collins,” she said scooping the blob from her neck. He took a step back, but she flung it, catching him on the arm. As if something snapped inside her, she set the bowl down and scooped up as much as both hands could hold and started firing frosting at him.
He laughed and ducked, picking up what he could from the floor and flinging it back. “Why you gotta call me names like that? What ever did I do to you?” He stepped aside missing a rather large mass waffling through the air.
“You think you have me all figured out. But you don’t. I have secrets you know nothing about.” She flung another handful, but he ducked so the glob splattered on the wall.
“Who you kidding? You don’t keep anything from me.” He wiped his hand across the mess on the wall and then turned to flick it at her.
She stared at her frosting-covered hands, considered her options, and decided to stop wishing for life to happen to her and to make her life happen instead. He thought he knew her so well. She’d see if he saw this coming, and more importantly, what he would do about it.
“Let’s call a truce,” she said and made sure she had his undivided attention. She licked a streak of frosting off her hand, nice and slow. Enough was enough. She was in love with Bill Collins and tired of waiting for him to figure it out.
His eyes narrowed, and he stepped forward.
She made another lick, not saying a word. She added a moan for good measure.
He thought he knew her did he? Well, she knew a thing or two about him.
“Lottie,” he said gruffly. “What are you doing?”
“Want to taste?” She held out her hand and stepped closer. She wanted him to take the last steps. Just two little ones. She needed him to make the final move.
He searched her face. She could tell he wanted her; he kept licking his lips and flexing his hands, as if they helped him control his wants. But she could see the uncertainty as well. She wished she knew what was causing it.
“You have a little…” She rubbed the bottom of her lip.
“You do, too.”
She grinned then stuck her pinkie in her mouth, cleaning off the icing. Following a groan, Bill rushed her, pushing her back against a wall. He grabbed her face between his hands and began licking bits of frosting off her face and neck. She fisted his shirt and held on.
“Lotts,” he whispered then left her speechless when his lips met hers in the softest kiss she’d ever experienced. Not that she’d experienced a lot of kissing. A few in high school, the occasional odd one in college, but she’d always held out for Bill. And this.
She pressed herself against him. Enough was enough. It was time they took this to the next level.
No! Not that level, but at the very least a real date.
He trailed a path of kisses along her jaw and down her neck.
“What do you say about coming here tonight for dinner, after the café closes?” She moved her head to the side to allow him greater access. “You know, for a real date.”
He paused, his lips over the pulse point in her neck. “A date?” He mumbled.
“Yeah, it’s what people do when they’re interested in each other.” She held her breath, her heart thumping erratically, waiting for what she needed. Him.
He straightened and took a small step back, his right arm extended over her shoulder and resting against the wall. “This” —he circled his finger in the space between them—“is new for me. I never saw it coming.”
Anger sparked inside her. “Because you’re daft,” she mumbled. This was not how she envisioned this going. Bill was going to make coming together more difficult than it need be.
“You’re wanting something serious, Lotts. I’m not. I don’t even know if I want to continue with the clergy.” He shook his head. “And what happens to us if this turns out to be a dud. Not only do I not want what you do, but if we fool around, I risk losing my best friend.” He shook his head some more.
“Besides, you know Anne and Darcy ran us through their program, and it says we aren’t a good match. I think that has to be taken into account.”
Lottie stared, amazed he would use these poor excuses to hide behind. Was he really that scared? Or could it be she’d read the signs wrong? The moment of doubt fed her anger. No, Charlotte Lucas was nothing if not decisive about her life. Going to pastry school was the right decision. Moving home, albeit sometimes very frustrating, had been the right decision, and loving Bill had always been the right decision. Certainly these decisions hadn’t brought immediate bliss, but they promised it. So long as everyone was as self-aware as she was. Which didn’t seem the case with Bill.
“Are you saying that over a quarter of a century of friendship is simply not even a consideration, but negated by a computer? And that you are actually considering the merit of it?” Her voice shook from frustration.
“I don’t think I can simply discount it. I—”
“Get out.” She pushed him from her, and then spun him around. “Just go. If you stay any longer and say another asinine thing, I think I might kill you.” She pushed him toward the back door.
“Lotts.” He tried to twist toward her, but anger gave her strength.
“I deserve a man who wants to be with me, Bill. A man who can’t wait to be with me. I thought you were that man, but you aren’t. Probably because you aren’t even your own man.” She stepped around him, opened the back door, and shoved him out. The confused expression on his face would have been comical if she weren’t so mad, and knowing he was so clueless made the anger fully blossom.
“You’re an idiot, William Collins,” she shouted, then stuck out her tongue and made the largest raspberry sound she could before slamming the door in his face.
She whipped it open a second later and found him standing as she’d just left him. “And I’m not coming over to watch the shows tonight either. You big stupid boob.” Man, it felt good to slam it a second time. If she could think of one more thing to yell at him about she would, simply to get the satisfaction the third door-slam would give her.