Highbury, Michigan may have been best known as a tourist attraction, but that wasn’t why Will Darcy lived there. He moved there for a job. He was an accountant with Knightley Accounting, a firm that his good friend’s family had run for several generations. The summer of 2011 was Will’s first as a resident of Highbury as he and his cousin, Ed Ferrars, had arrived in Highbury the previous fall.
By late June, Will was starting to feel settled into his life in Highbury. He’d become a regular at a coffee shop that George Knightley had introduced him to. The Knit Wit was a small café/bookstore that was owned by Annabelle Eliot and Elsa Bennet. The pair had inherited the café from the previous owner when she retired about five years earlier. The café had been Annabelle’s full-time job since she finished her bachelor’s degree several years earlier, but Elsa had worked there while working on her doctorate in English literature. She’d graduated in May, and was about to start teaching at Highbury College, a small liberal arts school. “You can’t live on a professor’s salary these days,” she’d told Will in April. “And I’m only teaching two courses. That leaves me enough time for the café.”
He wasn’t sure that was really true, and he knew that teaching two courses really meant that she was teaching two sections of each of those two courses. He did know that Elsa was an overachiever who wasn’t happy if her finger wasn’t in at least three different ventures. He’d been immediately attracted to Elsa, but they hadn’t exactly gotten off on the right foot. He had made the mistake of comparing the place to Starbucks on his first visit, which had understandably offended her. He hadn’t really gotten into her good graces until Thanksgiving. But they’d sorted things out and started dating during the winter.
“The Fourth of July is a big thing around here,” Elsa told her boyfriend. It was the evening of June 30, and Will was “helping” his girlfriend clean the café after closing.
“I grew up near Chicago. I’m sure that I’m used to big Independence Day celebrations.”
Elsa snorted. “You haven’t seen it in a resort town on a lake.”
“I’ve seen it in a big city on a lake.”
She threw a rag at him. “Trust me, Will. This is going to blow your mind. Just you wait until you see what Marianne wears on the day.”
The next day, a hand-written sign appeared in the front window of the Knit Wit that announced “We will be open from 6am until 11am on the Fourth. After that, we’ll be enjoying the fireworks with you!”
“The parade is at 10,” Annabelle explained. “We’ll close once the crowd clears out.”
“Then we’re going to watch the boat race at the Longbourn,” Elsa began.
“We?” Will repeated.
“You, me, Annie, Thor, Nora, Ed, Captain America, Emma.”
“Are you ever going to call Erik or George by their given names?”
His girlfriend shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“Don’t count on it,” Annabelle replied.
“George definitely has to be Captain America for the Fourth. I mean, come on! He was born on July 4, and he looks like Steve Rogers.” Elsa paused for a moment. “And Thor is just a good name for Erik.”
Will rolled his eyes. “You and your nicknames for blond muscle men…”
Elsa shrugged before continuing, “After the boat race, we’re going to a barbecue at my parents’ place.”
“The house or the hotel?”
“House,” she replied. “The hotel has a big party too, but my parents always spend the evening at their house with close friends and family.”
On the morning of the Fourth, Will, Ed, and George went to the Knit Wit around nine to meet up with a few of their friends before the parade. When they arrived, they found Emma Woodhouse sitting by the door eating a red, white and blue (raspberry, white chocolate, and blueberry) scone. “All right, boys, who is ready to celebrate America with me?”
George laughed. “Emma, have you looked at yourself today?”
“I’m wearing my American outfit!” she enthused. The chipper redhead was wearing blue shorts, a red shirt, an American flag scarf, a star-spangled headband, and an assortment of red, white and blue jewelry.
He shook his head. “Em, you’re too much.”
“I think I’m wonderful. Anyway, Happy Birthday, George Washington!”
Will laughed as he wandered over to the counter where his girlfriend was standing. She was wearing a light blue sundress with a flag-themed apron and a matching headband. “That’s what you’re wearing?”
“For work this morning, sure,” she replied. “I don’t want to get my fun things dirty, but I’ve got something exciting planned for tonight.”
He grinned. “I can’t wait to see it.”
“You’ll love it.”
“You didn’t raid Emma’s closet, did you?”
She shook her head. “Nor did I raid Marianne’s.”
“What is she wearing today?”
“Well, I haven’t seen her yet today, but she usually dresses up like Betsy Ross for the Fourth.”
“Betsy Ross?” he repeated.
She nodded. “She has a wig and a mop cap and everything. Her goal in life is to marry a man who will dress up like George Washington to match her.”
Will laughed. “Please tell me that you’re kidding.”
“I wish I was.”
Before he could reply, George approached the counter. “I need a medium dark roast and a star-spangled scone.”
Elsa smiled. “It’s on the house, Birthday Boy.”
“You don’t have to do that,” George blushed. “You already made my birthday pie.”
“But I want to.” Her face distinctly told him that this was an argument that he couldn’t win.
He shook his head. “Thanks, Elsa.”
“In the back, Nora called a bit ago.”
“How’s her dad doing?” Will asked.
Elsa shook her head as she prepared George’s order. “It’s not looking good. The doctors say it’s only looking like a few days more. The girls said that they’re hoping to make it out today, but they’re really not sure.”
“So I might not actually get to see Marianne’s Betsy Ross costume?”
“Not this year.”
“Well, what can I get for you?”
“Dark roast and an everything bagel with cream cheese.”
“You’ll get onion breath.”
He grinned. “I’ll chance it.”
“It’s not patriotic.”
“I hate blueberry bagels.”
“Six-forty-five,” she replied. “But you might regret it.”
Will didn’t think that the Highbury parade was anything extraordinary. There were two marching bands, a smattering of local politicians, a local beauty queen, and a few scout troops. Little kids got free candy and bubbles. “It’s entertaining enough,” Erik Wentworth remarked. “But it’s nothing special.”
“Well, there’s nothing else to do around here on Fourth of July morning,” George remarked. “But there’s the boat race this afternoon and then barbecue at the Bennets’ house in the evening.”
“What is the boat race?”
“It’s a sailboat race,” Emma explained. “It’s mostly kids between like sixteen and twenty. Elsa and I won it the summer before our senior year.”
“She’s never mentioned that.”
“It’s probably because she lost it the next year after our senior year of high school.”
“She lost the boat race?” Will asked.
“It was pretty great,” George said.
Emma made a face at her best friend. “It was not pretty great. It was pretty awful. She fell off the boat, Will. It was all her sister’s fault.”
“Ask her about it,” George added. “But be prepared for some language.”
“By sister, Em doesn’t mean Gwen,” Erik added. “Gwen’s not the boating type.”
“But Elsa is?”
“Oh yeah,” George replied. “That girl loves the water. She might be part fish; I’m not sure.”
“But Gwen isn’t much for the water,” Emma added.
“That’s odd for a Highbury kid, isn’t it?” Erik asked. “I mean, you guys grow up on the water.”
“Yeah, and the Longbourn is right by the water,” George said. “A huge part of the Longbourn’s appeal is the fact that the water is right there and you can rent boats or swim in the lake or whatever.”
“That’s what I thought,” Erik returned. “I boated there on the weekends during undergrad.”
“They offer a student deal on renting kayaks and canoes,” Emma explained. “If you like water, Highbury’s a great place to be.”
“If you don’t want to get messy, the water isn’t such a great place to be,” George elaborated. “And Gwen hates getting messy. The only boats she likes are pontoon boats.”
“Elsa, on the other hand, loves all boats. Her favorites are sailboats and speedboats.”
George looked at Emma with an expression that had probably originated about twenty years earlier when the teenaged George had babysat his younger brother, Emma, and her older sister. Despite the many times that Elsa had claimed to be the worst part of George’s babysitting career, Will and Ed suspected that Emma was far more likely to have earned that title.
After the parade, the group headed back to the café. Annabelle was counting down the till while Elsa was cleaning the tables and floors. When she saw Will, Elsa came outside. “Take my keys and go up to the apartment,” she said.
She grinned. “There’s a surprise up there.”
“What? Did Lord Peter and Harriet finally figure out how to flush the toilet?”
Her brown eyes rolled fiercely. “Go upstairs and find out.”
Will went upstairs and let himself into the apartment. As soon as he entered, Lord Peter, Elsa’s cat, bounded up to the door. He shut the door quickly so that the large black cat couldn’t sneak out the door and made his way into the kitchen. There he found a cooler. On top was a note. “Fill this with ice and then throw in the beer from the fridge, two bottles of white wine too if you can. We need it for the boat race. Love you!”
Elsa came back upstairs a few minutes later to find her boyfriend following her directions. “All right, it’s time for me to get into my party things, and then we’re going to party like it’s 1776.”
“You don’t have a Betsy Ross costume that I don’t know about, do you?”
She giggled. “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never do that.”
“Oh good,” he began. “I’m not sure…”
“It’s a Martha Washington outfit-complete with wig and false teeth,” she interrupted before running out of the room. Her boyfriend stood there with his mouth hanging open staring after her.
Will’s mouth was still open when Annabelle came in a few minutes later. “What’s up?” she asked.
“Is Elsa really dressing up as Martha Washington?”
“Well, she was the mother of our country.”
“Annabelle,” he said. “Be serious.”
“Then what is she?”
Annabelle smiled. “Wait and see.”
Will settled himself on the couch while he waited for the two to return. He grabbed the ever-present copy of Gaudy Night off the coffee-table and started reading. When Lord Peter came to sit next to him, he smiled. Eventually, Elsa appeared wearing jean shorts, a chambray blouse over a white tank-top, and a red headband with a messy bun.
“Rosie the Riveter,” he said.
She smiled. “Nora, Annie, and I figured out that it’s a pretty great patriotic costume and way less work than a Martha Washington costume.”
True enough, Annie appeared in the room wearing white shorts, a chambray blouse over a red tank top, and a red headband with a messy bun. “That’s what you’re wearing?” she said to Will.
He looked down at his blue jeans and a white shirt. “George said it was okay.”
“George wears socks with sandals,” Elsa replied.
“He’s wearing a Captain America shirt today!”
“Because Elsa bought it for him.”
Will rolled his eyes. There was no winning with these two. “Let’s just go.”
To understand the way that the Highbury Girls (as Ed called them) approached the Fourth of July, you had to know a few basic facts. Elsa Bennet and Nora Dashwood had bonded in three-year-old preschool over their shared belief that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Annabelle Eliot believed that HOW/WHY you did a thing was substantially more important than WHAT you had done. Gwen Bennet believed that above all kindness was key. Emma Woodhouse believed that everything (well, okay, almost everything) could be a cause for celebration if you looked hard enough. Marianne Dashwood believed that there was no such thing as Over The Top.
The six girls had grown up together. Gwen was the oldest and Marianne the youngest. (Technically, George’s cousin, Alice Knightley-Kingsleigh was also one of the Highbury girls, but she was married and therefore not quite as involved in the group anymore. For the record, she was older than Gwen by four months.) According to George, they’d been a force to be reckoned with since the early 1990s. “Understand,” he’d explained to Ed and Will the night before the Fourth. “The primary force of that group was Emma and Elsa. Marianne was good at whining, which tended to wear down their opponents. Nora was good at supporting Elsa with well reasoned arguments.”
“Not Emma?” Ed had asked.
George snorted. “Emma didn’t have reasonable arguments. Heck, she still doesn’t. She came up with ideas and then expected Elsa and Nora to represent her case for her to the powers that be.”
“How’d that go?” Will queried.
“Depended on the opponent; Em was used to her dad who gave her whatever she wanted as long as it didn’t put him out too much. Nora and Elsa were used to their own fathers who were much stricter.”
“She was so used to being ignored or disappointed at home that I think she just didn’t care. Thankfully, Elsa was pretty good at wheedling out what Annie wanted and then helping her get it.”
When Erik pulled in, Will was surprised at how crowded the parking lot at the Longbourn was. He’d been to the hotel plenty of times, and he’d never seen it this busy. Elsa looked at her boyfriend and laughed. “I told you the Fourth was a big deal around here.”
“Is this for the barbecue?”
She shook her head and then quickly adjusted her headband. “This is all about the boat race.”
“What’s the deal with the boat race?” he asked as they began walking towards the beach.
“So you get a sailboat and a team of two or three together and the goal is to get from the docks out to my dad’s boat, which is three miles from shore, and back to the docks the fastest,” Elsa explained.
“Without capsizing once,” Annabelle continued.
Elsa glared at her friend. “Or forcing your older sister who is the captain of your boat and only let you be on her team to make you stop whining to capsize.”
“How long ago did that happen?” Erik queried.
The petite brunette removed her sunglasses and glared wordlessly at him.
“Elsa’s motto is clearly forgive but never forget,” Will teased.
“I was winning. I was mere yards from shore! I was going to defend my championship. And instead, I broke my leg. The leg still stings.”
“And that’s what this all comes down to,” Annabelle said. “She’d won the year before, and then because of some dumb mistake that Mae made, she tipped and broke her leg.”
“Blergh,” Elsa sighed. “That was the last time I gave in to one of my mother’s guilt trips.”
“It was probably the only time you ever did that,” Erik remarked.
“When I was a kid, I was more susceptible to her.”
“It takes time to grow a backbone,” Will replied. “And that’s hard when your mom presses on you like that.”
“You know,” Elsa sighed. “I like to think that I get some of my strength from my mama. That woman is a lot of things, but you can’t say that she isn’t strong-willed.”
Annabelle smiled. “And unlike my parents, you’ll never be able to say that Mary Frances Bennet doesn’t love her children.”
Will smiled as Elsa wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulders and leaned her head of dark brown hair against her friend’s fair cheek. “Families aren’t perfect.”
“Just look at Ed’s,” Will offered. “My aunt Catherine will never be anyone’s picture of an ideal mother, but Ed turned out alright.”
Eventually, the four found George (who was wearing a Captain America t-shirt with khaki shorts and flip-flops) and Emma who were settled near the beach with a large blue picnic blanket. “Nora just texted,” Emma greeted the newcomers. “Apparently her dad is doing well enough that they’re coming.”
“Jamie’s supposed to be in the race,” Elsa replied. “Dr. Dashwood wouldn’t want him to miss that.”
“Not when he could actually win,” George added. “Dr. D would be thrilled to see his son win.”
“Or at least hear about it,” Elsa noted cautiously.
“Either way,” Emma continued. “Betsy Ross and the fourth Rosie will be here. Ed will be bringing them.”
Ed Ferrars and Nora Dashwood had been friends since college. Will suspected that his cousin would end up dating and ultimately marrying the older Dashwood sister, but Ed was still working through the very recent demise of his relationship with his long-time girlfriend, Lucy Steele, who had recently left him for his brother.
Will had to admit that the boat race was something else. Fifteen sailboats took off from the main dock and raced towards a large speedboat that was anchored a decent distance from shore. “So you did this when you were younger?” he asked his girlfriend.
She nodded. “I won when I was seventeen.”
“And broke your leg when you were eighteen?” he queried.
“I’m still not over that,” she replied with a smirk.
“So when do I get to experience your boating expertise?”
“We’ve been on a boat before.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’ve been on a boat with you and other people. And that was before I knew that you were a champion boater.”
She snorted before leaning against his chest. “I prefer to call myself a pilot or captain when I’m on the water.”
“So when can I play first mate, Cap?”
She smiled. “Maybe I’ll take you out to watch the fireworks this evening.”
He wrapped his arm around her abdomen and rested his long fingers on top of her tangled fingers. “So why didn’t you tell me about the boat race before today?”
Elsa shrugged. “It’s a sore spot with me. You know that my boat is my escape.”
“I stopped racing after that whole thing when I was 18.”
“But you still boat?”
She laughed. “Oh yeah, I love the water. I love boats. I’m never giving them up.”
“You’ll take me out on the water soon?”
“You want to go on a speedboat or a sailboat?”
Will looked at his girlfriend and smiled. “Speedboat, I feel like that’s probably where your personality really shines.”
Elsa threw her head back and laughed. “You know me. I love living life on the edge.”
“Are speedboats more Emma’s thing?”
His girlfriend only laughed more, but before she could answer, Nora did. “Yachts are more of Emma’s thing.”
“Emma doesn’t pilot boats,” Elsa elaborated. “She’ll be a passenger, but she prefers yachts to sailboats or speedboats.”
“She finds pontoons to be too clunky for her taste.”
“Oh dear.” Will’s comment was not, in fact, in response to Elsa’s comment about pontoons but rather because he had caught sight of Marianne Dashwood who was wearing a costume that seemed to be a perfect replication of a portrait of Betsy Ross.
“Oh good,” Elsa replied as she caught sight of Betsy Ross and the third Rosie the Riveter. “Now the gang is all here.”
“Ah, my darlings!” Marianne Dashwood called as she walked up to the group. “George, you look terribly bland. Couldn’t you have at least worn a Captain America costume?”
He rolled his blue eyes. “Marianne, you may be comfortable with 84 petticoats under that gown, but I’m just not built to wear a Lycra suit when it’s over 80 degrees out here.”
She sighed. “Fine, but I don’t want any pics of you showing up on my Insta.”
“Because that’s what the Founding Fathers were all about after all,” he muttered. “They just wanted us all to have the freedom to only the pictures we want on our social media feeds.”
“George,” the blonde replied. “I’m sorry, but you’re boring.”
He shrugged. “You may think that, but I’m rarely bored.”
Will raised his eyebrows as he turned his attention to Nora and Ed. “How’s your dad doing?”
Nora sighed. “It’s not looking good. I mean, okay. It hasn’t looked good for a while, but…”
Her friend put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “I know. I know.”
“Will,” she said softly. “It’s…it’s scary.”
He pulled her into a one-armed hug. “Nora-Dora, I wish I could say or do something.”
“I know,” she replied as she rested her head against his shoulder briefly. She shook her head and stood up straight. “But it is, unfortunately, what it is.”
“Still,” Ed spoke softly. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
“Well, right now you can watch my brother win this race. We offered to stay home with him, but Dad wanted Jamie to go out there and win. So…here we are.”
After the race, which James and his team won, the Dashwood siblings headed home while the rest of the group headed to Elsa’s parents’ house. Elsa’s parents lived about ten minutes from the hotel in an old Victorian house. Will’s favorite thing about the Bennet family home was the backyard. There was a patio that ran the entire width of the back of the house, then the standard trees, grass, and gardens, and then there was the lake. In addition to docking the family boats, the Bennet family’s dock afforded wonderful view of sunrises, sunsets, and fireworks displays.
Currently, Tom Bennet’s prized speedboat and Elsa’s Sunfish were the only boats anchored on the dock. Tom loved fast boats almost as much as he loved his five daughters and his two miniature Schnauzers. He owned three motorboats, two of which he kept at the hotel and the third, his favorite, was at his house. Inevitably, he’d end up taking a few chosen guests out on the lake to watch the fireworks.
The Bennet family’s Fourth of July party was for their friends and family. Tom and Mary Frances’s five daughters were there as well as relatives and friends. When Will and Elsa arrived on the patio, Oliver Kingsleigh was waiting for them with drinks in hand. “Elsa, put the birthday pie in the kitchen and then come drink to treason and treachery with me.”
“Elsa,” her boyfriend inserted. “Show him the pie first. He’s going to love it.”
“What did you make for our treasonous friend’s treasonous birthday?”
Elsa rolled her eyes. “Oliver, you live here. You’re married to an American. You work for an American institution. Your daughter is an American citizen, and your impending daughter will be one. Can you really go around talking about OUR treason in good conscience?”
The Brit laughed as he handed a beer to Will. “On Treason Day, I can. The rest of the year, I’ll let it go. Now, show me that pie.”
Elsa took the cover off the pie to reveal a pie that looked like Captain America’s shield. “The center is a blueberry-blackberry mix. The first red stripe is cherry. The white stripe is meringue. The second red stripe is raspberries and strawberries.”
“Does George know about this?”
“Sort of?” she shrugged. “He knows that I’m working with a variety of flavors.”
“This is cooler than your stars and stripes thing that you normally do.”
“George likes that one but I wanted to try something different and he’s low-key enough that I could.”
“Not like the fit Emma would pitch if you tried to change her birthday cake.”
Elsa snorted. “If I ever tried to make Emma anything other than the same champagne and raspberry curd cake that I’ve been making her for the past ten years, she’d never speak to me again.”
“You’ve been making that cake since she was eighteen?” Will queried.
Elsa nodded with a grim look on her face. “My mom was buying me the champagne before I was old enough to buy it. Emma loves that thing so much. But seriously, I have to get this pie inside.”
As his girlfriend walked away, Will shook his head. “Emma is something else.”
“Always has been, as far as I know,” Oliver replied. “Alice is an encyclopedia of stories about Emma’s childhood.”
“I can only imagine what growing up next door to her was like.”
Before Oliver could reply, his wife called his name from the other side of the patio. “Oh lord, what has Josie done now?”
“I don’t know, but you’d better go find out.”
Oliver nodded and headed off towards his pregnant wife and their mischievous toddler. A minute later, first Ed and George replaced him, and then a few moments after that Elsa joined them. “My dad has meat on the grill.”
“Excellent,” George grinned. “I think your dad’s grilling may be my favorite part of my birthday.”
“It’s not the fireworks?”
That earned her a snort from the birthday boy. “You know full well that I’d far rather eat a well cooked steak than watch fireworks explode in the sky.”
“Ah,” Elsa sighed. “Give me a burger and fireworks, and it truly is the Fourth of July.”
“Yeah, but that’s celebrating the Fourth,” George told her with a smile. “A good steak is something that I really love, and I want to celebrate my birthday by eating something I love.”
She smiled. “I get that. And you know that my dad has one on the grill for you even now.”
“He’s a good man, your dad.”
“He does his best.”
“I’ve always liked that your parents are willing to let this event also be my birthday party, but now that my family has all moved away I really appreciate it. It makes me feel like I’m family.”
“You are family, George,” Elsa replied. “I really mean that.”
If Elsa calling him family had made him smile, then Will felt that it would be fair to say that George came close to exploding with glee when he saw his birthday pie. “You made that for me?” he asked after blowing out his candles.
He grinned at her. “Elsa, you’re a good friend.”
She blushed and shrugged. “I love baking, and I really love baking for my friends.”
He kept grinning. “Elsa, this is incredible. I love it.”
“You haven’t even tried it yet.”
George rolled his eyes. “Fine, I love the way it looks. I know that I’m going to love eating it.”
Elsa grinned at him before setting the pie down on the table and handing him a knife and the pie server. “Have at it, birthday boy. Tell us what you think.”
George solemnly cut the pie into eight slices and put one on a paper plate. After three contemplative bites, he looked up. “Elspeth Abigail, you are a genius.”
“You like it?” she asked.
He gave her a slice and a fork. “Try it, Elsa. I love it.” He kissed her cheek. “Thank you so much, kiddo. You’re an absolute gem of a friend.”
Will and Elsa ended the evening alone on her sailboat watching the fireworks. “So this is the Fourth of July in Highbury,” he sighed as he leaned back to watch the brilliant exploding colors.
She grinned at him. “This is the Fourth in Highbury.”
“I like it. I really like it.”
“Was your mind blown?”
He pressed his lips together pensively. “Yes, but not in the way I expected; it’s much simpler, much more family-oriented than the fourth in Lambton.”
“That’s Highbury. We’re all family here.”
“And I’m glad to be a part of it,” he told her. Then he leaned over and kissed her.
The End...for now.