Chapter 1: Part 1: A Life That's Good
There are several people who helped make this fic a reality, namely erinwert, missclaudiaar, mamaleh6994 and ahundredteas. Please see the endnotes on chapter 6 for more extensive details and thank you's but basically all four of them are superstars and you should all shower them with love because they deserve it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A Life That’s Good
I don't get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls
Brought me here
- ‘The Luckiest’, Ben Folds
Lizzie woke up slowly, stretching before propping herself up on her elbow to smile down at William’s sleeping form. He was always so relaxed and peaceful when he was asleep, his face holding a boyish innocence in slumber that fascinated her. Gone were the worry lines and severe gaze and in their place remained the smooth, tranquil profile of someone who was perfectly content. After over two years of marriage, Lizzie had practically memorized his features, yet she never tired of watching him like this. She found him to be the most alluring and enchanting person she had ever seen and she treasured mornings where she woke before him and could appreciate him in silence.
She felt a sudden burst of affection for him and, growing impatient with waiting for him to awaken, she kissed him. Lips pressed lightly against the softness of his, she kissed him leisurely at first, increasing intensity and pressure as he began to stir. Soon, he flipped her gently onto her back, gliding his lips over hers with heightened urgency until they both lay flushed and breathless.
“Good morning, my dear, sweet Lizzie,” William breathed against the contour of her jaw as he kissed his way up towards her hairline. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply before laying back against his pillow, a glint in his eye. “I have missed our lazy Saturdays.”
Lizzie cuddled herself against his chest. “So have I. I’m glad you don’t have to work at all this weekend.”
“I do need to pack for my trip on Tuesday, but aside from that, I am all yours.” He kissed the top of her head, then started to ease himself out of bed. “Why don’t we shower and then I’ll make us something to eat?”
Lizzie grinned. “Okay.”
True to his word, William made them breakfast. Throughout their many years of dating and marriage, Lizzie had learned that when William was cooking, it was best to stay back and observe, lest she get in the way. He had a very particular rhythm while he worked and frankly, she enjoyed watching more than helping anyway. On this particular morning, he did not disappoint as he expertly whisked the crepes he’d made from scratch into a smooth golden-yellow batter.
Lizzie sipped her coffee, periodically peering over her phone to appreciate the lithe way he moved around the kitchen. She was in the midst of juggling light-hearted text conversations with both Gigi and Charlotte, when William set their plates on the table.
“So, you’ll only be gone for four days?” Lizzie asked between bites as they both began to eat.
“Yes. I fly into Guatemala on Tuesday morning and return Friday. It’s a brief preliminary trip to scout the facility we would be equipping and to work out some of the details in person. There will be a follow up trip in a few months when it’s time to actually get everything set up.”
Lizzie smiled. This Guatemalan partnership had ignited a level of passion in him that she’d never seen before when it came to his work. “I think it’s so great the way that you’re utilising Pemberley’s technology to help bring advancement to education in a country like Guatemala.”
“I’m glad we have the ability to use our knowledge to help people.” William took a sip of his coffee. “Pemberley won’t profit from this endeavour, of course, but the children at the school we’re hoping to assist will have greater opportunities and brighter futures should this be successful.”
“And you think it will be?”
William nodded. “Absolutely. This trip will confirm it, but I can’t see why we won’t be able to come to an agreement. My hope is that, if this venture works, we’ll be able to branch out to assist similar schools in countries all over the world.”
“Look at you, bettering the education of children everywhere.”
“That’s the dream.” William shrugged. “By this time next week, I should know for sure.”
“I’m proud of you, William. To think that I once thought you were a wealthy snob who didn’t care about anyone’s interests but your own.”
William leaned over to kiss her nose. “Well, I for one am very grateful you got over that assumption.”
“It took me long enough.”
“It’s true, it did.” William looked upward, raising his eyebrows playfully. “You were so slow.”
“Hey now.” Lizzie pushed his shoulder. “Be nice.”
He sat up straighter, gesturing to his chest. “I am always nice.”
Lizzie regarded him sceptically. “I could present plenty of evidence to the contrary, but,” Lizzie picked up their plates and carried them to the kitchen, “Since we are meeting your sister and Fitz at the Exploratorium in an hour, I think we should get ready instead.”
The Exploratorium was great fun. William’s inability to walk past anything without either explaining (in great depth) how it worked, or examining it closely to find out how it functioned, was incredibly endearing to Lizzie. It was a side of him that she didn’t get to see very often, but William loved science and technology and there was nothing like a museum full of innovative exhibits to bring out his inner science geek.
Dinner afterward was at a nearby restaurant and the four of them fell quickly into easy conversation.
“So, Will, my man, are you excited about your trip next week?” Fitz asked. “I’ve always wanted to go to Central America. Brandon keeps promising me we can go sometimes but it hasn’t happened yet. The tease.”
“I am, yes.” William took a sip of his wine. “I’m especially looking forward to seeing the school we’re hoping to assist.”
“I can’t wait to hear about that,” Gigi said. “It was definitely the most interesting of the schools I researched for you. Did you know that the principal was hired when he was only fifteen? Actually, he was less hired and more appointed, but he built the school from the ground up with very little support.”
“Wow.” Lizzie looked at William. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“I didn’t know.” William looked at Gigi. “That’s impressive. I must remember to ask him about that.”
Gigi beamed at her brother. “You should. It’s really amazing what he’s accomplished.”
The waitress came to take their orders. As she went around the table, William shifted closer to Lizzie until his shoulder brushed against hers, as did his knee and his ankle. A current of electricity spread through her and she internally marveled how, even after two years of marriage and several of dating, a simple bit of contact could set her pulse racing and make her cheeks flush.
“So, Brandon and I are thinking about starting a family,” Fitz announced once the waitress had left. “We’re going to meet with some adoption agencies next week.”
“Wow! That’s amazing,” Gigi told him. “How does that work? Do you get to request if you want a boy or girl?”
“I’m not really sure yet,” Fitz said. “I’ll let you know once we’ve talked to them. We don’t really have a preference though. We have talked about maybe adopting an older child though, since they’re the ones who often end up in the system. Not that we wouldn’t love a baby, but the demand for babies is greater.”
“You’ve done your research.” Lizzie remarked.
“Always, Lizzie, B.”
“I think that’s fantastic,” William told his friend. “You and Brandon will make excellent parents.”
The rest of the meal passed in pleasant conversation and, before Lizzie knew it, they were standing outside bidding farewell to Gigi and Fitz.
“Have a good trip, big brother,” Gigi chirped. “And try to have a little fun while you’re at it. You can’t be serious all the time.”
“Don’t worry, Gigi, I will.” William folded her into a hug. “We’re still on for lunch to debrief on the first Monday I’m back?”
“Definitely.” Gigi hugged her brother back. “I expect details. I want to know everything!”
“You got it.” He planted a kiss on the top of her head.
Lizzie and William watched for a moment as Gigi and Fitz headed in the direction of Fitz’s car. William threaded his fingers between hers and tugged her gently towards him. “Ready to go home?” he asked in a suggestively low voice, his eyes sparkling with unspoken promise.
Lizzie moistened her lips. “Definitely.”
The rest of the weekend passed in a blur and, before Lizzie knew it, Tuesday morning dawned bright with warm August sun. She’d taken the morning off work to drive William to the airport, even though he’d insisted he could just hire a car. Maybe it came from all the rom-coms she’d seen as a teenager, but she liked the idea of seeing her husband off, even though he was only going to be gone for a few days.
After parking the car, Lizzie and William walked hand in hand across the concourse to the terminal. William had already checked in online so, after leaving his suitcase with bag drop, they walked together in the direction of his gate.
“Well, I guess I can’t go any further,” she said softly as they neared the line for security.
William stopped a few feet from the security entrance. “I guess not.” He pulled her into a tight hug and suddenly, Lizzie inexplicably didn’t want to let go.
“I love you,” she whispered into his shoulder.
He released her, taking a moment to slowly brush her hair off her face. She’d curled it before they’d left and, judging from the smile on his face as he twisted his fingers through the soft spirals, he liked it. “I love you too, my dear, sweet, Lizzie.” He hugged her again, briefly this time. “I shall miss you.
“I’m glad you’ll only be gone for four days,” Lizzie admitted. They’d come to rely on each other’s presence and the thought of him not being there when she woke up in the morning was not one she liked.
“As am I.”
“You promise you’ll Skype?”
“I shall try. I do not know what the internet will be like but, should it be possible, I will Skype you, otherwise I shall telephone you instead.”
His use of ‘telephone’ made her lips turn upwards. Even after over five years together, he still surprised her with his formal speech patterns. “That works.”
They stood staring at each other for several beats, neither wanting to be the first to say goodbye. Behind William, the line through security was growing and Lizzie knew it was time. She rolled up to the tips of her toes to kiss him tenderly. His hands instinctively found her waist as he leaned into her, lengthening the kiss with gentle, languid motions that caused butterflies in her stomach to stir.
Someone nearby cleared their throat and Lizzie reluctantly broke the kiss, turning their embrace into a hug.
“Goodbye, William,” she said, her voice shaking slightly as she pulled away, needing to have physical distance between him in order to let him go. “I hope your tour of the school goes well tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Lizzie.” His gaze lingered on hers for a moment. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” She raised her hand in a sort of half wave as he turned to join the security line. Lizzie remained rooted to her spot until he disappeared beyond the barrier and vanished from sight.
Lizzie drove straight from the airport to Pemberley, settling into her office not long past noon. After checking with her secretary for messages, she distracted herself from missing William by tackling the large pile of paperwork on her desk. Before she knew it, it was time to go home. Not wanting to return to an empty apartment just yet, she swung by Gigi’s office on the way out, but Gigi had already left for the day. Instead, Lizzie picked up takeout, curled up on the couch to watch a terrible movie, and eventually fell asleep.
The phone woke her early on Wednesday morning. As she reached out to answer it, pain shot through her neck due to the awkward position she’d been in on the sofa.
“Hello?” she said groggily.
“Lizzie?” It was William. His voice was faint over the crackly line but it made her smile anyway.
“William,” she said more clearly, rubbing at her sore neck as she sat up. “How’s Guatemala?”
“Hot and sticky.” She could almost picture the expression of disgust on his face. William was a steadfast fan of the San Francisco fog and, on the rare days when the heat escalated, he was never amused.
“Have you seen the school yet?”
“No, I’m on my way there shortly. I wanted to call you now since I’m not sure how long that will take and the internet was really patchy last night.”
“I’m glad you did.” Lizzie yawned. “It’s nice to hear your voice.”
“Yours too.” There was some noise in the background and after a moment William added, “I am sorry, Lizzie, I have to go, but I will try to call you tonight.”
“Okay. Bye, William.”
“Goodbye, Lizzie. I will talk to you soon.”
She stared at the phone for a beat before setting it aside and hauling herself to her feet. It was time to get ready for work.
Not long before lunch, there was a knock on Lizzie’s office door.
“Gigi!” She smiled as she looked up to see her sister-in-law in the doorway.
“Hi, Lizzie. I was wondering if maybe you’d like to grab some lunch with me today.”
Lizzie smiled easily. “I’d love to!” She and Gigi had grown close, particularly in the year since Lizzie had started working at Pemberley, and she enjoyed spending time with her. It almost made up for her own sisters living in other parts of the country.
“Great! Just let me grab my things. Meet me at the elevators in five?”
Fifteen minutes later, they were settled at a table in one of their favorite nearby restaurants.
They chatted comfortably throughout the meal, Gigi entertaining Lizzie with tales of her various online dating mishaps, while Lizzie relayed amusing stories of her mother dropping anvil-sized hints regarding grandbabies.
“It’s not enough that Jane already has two children. Apparently, Lydia and I need to do our part too.”
“Your mother is a determined woman.” Gigi shook her head. “Did you hear what she said to me when we were all at the 4th of July barbecue last month?”
“No, I think I missed that.”
“Well, she gave me this devastated look and said, ‘Why Gigi, it’s such a shame that a beautiful young woman like you doesn’t have a ring on her finger. You would think there would be dozens of suitable young men in a big city like San Francisco.’” Gigi had done such a great impression of Lizzie’s mother that Lizzie burst out laughing.
“Really? Oh god.” Lizzie rolled her eyes inwardly. “That’s a true sign you’ve been adopted into the Bennet family then. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. As wedding and baby crazy as your mother is, it’s actually kind of nice having someone other than you or my brother care about my future.” Gigi’s eyes grew sombre. “I never thought I’d get the chance to experience that.”
Lizzie squeezed Gigi’s hand. “I’m glad then.”
“Me too.” Gigi squeezed back. “My brother couldn’t have married into a better family.”
Lizzie found herself welling up and she blinked furiously. “Look at me getting all weepy. I blame the sappy movie I watched last night.”
Gigi laughed. “I always seem to be more sentimental this time of the month. At least I’m not crampy today. Yesterday was dreadful. I actually left work early so I could go have a date with my heating pad.”
“Ugh, that’s the worst.” Lizzie frowned, a strange sensation washing over as she did some quick math in her head and she realized she was a week late. She’d been so busy with work that she hadn’t noticed until that moment. She wasn’t overly concerned though: she’d been late before, and even if it turned out she was pregnant, she and William would manage. They’d talked about having a family one day and even though they had planned to wait a little longer, they could adapt if necessary. Making a mental note to stop on the way home to get a test, Lizzie smiled at Gigi who was studying her with concern. “We should probably get back to the office.”
Gigi looked as though she wanted to ask Lizzie what was wrong, but she seemed to reconsider at the last moment and nodded. “Good idea.”
Lizzie’s computer was beeping at her when she let herself into the apartment that evening. She’d left her laptop open on the kitchen table and, as she examined it, she saw that William was calling her on Skype. She’d hoped to to take the pregnancy test before they talked but it seemed that she would have to wait. She accepted his call as she peeled off her coat and slid into one of the dining room chairs.
“William?” His image was fuzzy.
“Lizzie! Did you just get home?” He frowned. “I suppose I calculated the time difference conversion incorrectly. No matter. How was your day?”
“Great. I had lunch with your sister, it was nice.”
“How was the school tour?”
“It was informative. The school is very primitive and basic. Less of a building and more of a room, but with some minor electricity additions, which we are going to work out tomorrow, it should be able to handle our technology.”
“Oh, that’s fabulous!”
“Yes. It is. I had the chance to meet many of the students it will benefit. This is going to change their futures, Lizzie. They will have so many more opportunities once the project is complete.”
“I’m so glad, William. You seem very excited about this.”
He smiled. “I am. It has been my desire to execute this form of outreach for a long time; to make a difference in the world, even in a small way.”
“You are, William.”
His image became distorted suddenly and, though she could tell he was trying to say something, the sound was unclear.
“William? I didn’t catch that.”
More indistinct noises followed and then the call dropped. Lizzie waited for a few minutes, hoping that he’d call back. Just as she was about to give up, he sent a text message through Skype.
I’m sorry Lizzie, the connection cut out. It’s come back but video chat will no longer connect so I shall bid you goodnight and I will talk to you tomorrow morning.
Okay. Sounds good. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I love you.
I love you too, Lizzie.
Lizzie lowered the lid to her laptop and spotted the paper bag she’d thrown haphazardly on the table in her haste to answer William’s call. She’d completely forgotten about the pregnancy test while talking to William, but it didn’t matter. She would take the test that night and, if there was any news to share, she’d tell him in the morning. She pulled the white and pink box from the bag, reading the instructions once more before making her way to the bathroom to take the test.
Several minutes later, Lizzie set the timer on her phone for the specified amount of time and started pacing. She suddenly felt inexplicably nervous. If it was positive, that would mean she was going to be a mother. She had contemplated motherhood before, but she often fought doubts that she wouldn’t make a very good one. Look at the mess she had made of things with Lydia all those years ago. What if she messed up with her own child and hurt him or her the way she’d hurt her sister? Lizzie couldn’t bear the thought of that. She suddenly wished William was there with her, waiting by her side, holding her hand. Maybe she should have waited until Friday when he was home to take the test. Maybe she —
The timer trilled suddenly, interrupting her thoughts. She gave herself a moment to gather her courage before picking up the little white stick and staring down at it. Her heart started to beat more quickly. Unless she had done it wrong, she was indeed pregnant. Suddenly struck by the irony of her conversation with Gigi earlier that day regarding her mother’s quest for grandbabies, Lizzie began to laugh. Life sure had a funny sense of humor sometimes.
Oddly enough, as soon as Lizzie knew for sure that she was pregnant, her qualms about it seemed to abate. As she curled up on the couch that night, she wrapped her arms around her belly protectively and marvelled at the fact that there was a life growing inside her. A life created by her and William out of their love. It was beautiful really.
She grinned as she thought about how happy William would be to know he was going to be a father. After growing up the way that he had, and losing his parents at such a young age, Lizzie knew that having a family of his own was something that was incredibly important to him.
There were practical things to consider, like her job. It had only been a year since she had been hired as the Director of Interactive Media at Pemberley after all, and she had hoped to be more comfortable in her role before taking this step. Still, she knew that it was going to be alright. She and William would work it out together, the way they always did.
Lizzie crawled into bed, smiling as she tried to imagine William’s face when she told him the news. For the briefest moment, she toyed with the idea of waiting until Friday to tell him in person, but she quickly discarded the idea. She was too happy to keep this news to herself any longer than necessary. She’d tell him when he called her in the morning. With that, she drifted off to sleep, a smile on her face.
“Come on, Lizzie, please open the door.”
BANG! BANG! BANG!
A moan escaped Lizzie’s lips as she stumbled out of bed to see who was pounding on her door at six o’clock in the morning.
“I’m coming!” she shouted as her unexpected visitor knocked again. Lizzie swung open the door, surprised to see Gigi standing there in her pajamas, tears staining her cheeks.
“Oh, Lizzie, thank god.”
“Gigi? What’s wrong? Why aren’t you dressed? Were you crying?”
Gigi grabbed her arm, pulling Lizzie up the stairs. “You need to turn on the TV. Now.”
“What? Why? Gigi what is going on? You’re scaring me.”
Ignoring her questions, the younger girl gently propelled Lizzie towards the living room, flipped the TV to the news and collapsed onto the couch. “Just watch, I… oh god.” Gigi buried her face in her hands. Lizzie frowned as she settled beside Gigi, rubbing her hand over the other girl’s back as she tried to pay attention and make sense of what was going on.
“…The 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Guatemala at 7:13 am local time this morning. Dozens of buildings have collapsed and officials are reporting that there have been hundreds of casualties, though they will not know exact numbers for a while. All phone networks are down and the power company is reporting major outages…”
Blood rushed through Lizzie’s ears as the words hit her. Earthquake. Guatemala. “William.” She whispered. “Gigi, William’s there.”
Gigi looked up at her. “I know. I tried calling him but there was no answer. Lizzie, the epicentre was less than 3 miles from Guatemala city.”
“Oh god.” Lizzie couldn’t breathe. Images of William laying trapped or injured or worse filtered through her mind and she let out a low pitched wail. “Gigi, he has to be okay, he has to be.”
Gigi just stared at her, eyes swimming with tears. “I know. I’ve already lost my parents, he’s my only family. Lizzie I can’t lose him too.” Gigi started to sob and Lizzie instinctively wrapped her arms around her, rocking her gently as her own shoulders began to shake. They clung to each other, the news continuing to play in the background as they both prayed that William was alright.
In the hours that followed, Lizzie completely lost track of time. She remembered snippets of the news, fragmented bits of information like how the earthquake was shallow and devastating; reports of people being rescued from the rubble; reports of more buildings collapsing as the country was hit with large aftershocks. As the day wore on, there were phone calls from her sisters and her parents wanting to know if she’d heard anything from William, but Lizzie could barely talk to them, giving them clipped answers as she tried to hold back her tears. She continued to cling to Gigi. All they could do was sit and wait.
Fitz came by, sitting with them and holding vigil. Lizzie said that she wanted to go look for William but Gigi and Fitz both talked her out of it. It was too dangerous. The country was in a state of emergency. They needed to let the emergency teams do their job.
Somehow, they made it through the day. Fitz had brought pizza but neither Lizzie nor Gigi had much of an appetite. Before he left, he put it in the fridge, making them promise to try to eat later. Around 11, Lizzie turned off the TV. She couldn’t take anymore - all those reporters spouting facts and statistics were meaningless. They told her nothing that she wanted to know. Like where William was, or that he was okay and on his way back to her.
She looked at Gigi. “We should probably sleep.”
Gigi nodded. “Can I stay here? I don’t want to go home to my empty apartment.”
“Of course.” Lizzie looked down the hallway toward her bedroom and shuddered. The thought of crawling into their bed with William missing was unbearable. “I’ll get blankets. We can sleep out here.”
Gigi helped her turn the large couch into a bed for them. Lizzie lay awake long after Gigi’s breathing patterns had levelled out in sleep. She was tired but her brain refused to let her rest. Instead, she drove herself crazy imagining every scenario possible. William lying bleeding and broken in the rubble. William lying lifeless on the ground. William lying unconscious in a hospital somewhere. She finally managed to settle her mind by imagining that he’d gotten out safely and that he’d been returning to San Francisco the next day as planned.
Friday morning, they woke to the news of another large aftershock. More damage, more deaths, more destruction. Still, Lizzie clung to the hope she’d had the night before and insisted to Gigi that they get dressed and drive out to the airport to meet William’s flight.
“He’ll be on it,” Lizzie insisted, “I just know he will.”
“He has to be,” Gigi agreed.
William’s flight had originally been due to land at 12:30, but it had been delayed by several hours since passengers had been bussed to a different airport that was safe to fly out of, so Lizzie and Gigi left for the airport around 3. By the time they got to the terminal, his flight still hadn’t arrived, so Lizzie and Gigi waited, watching the monitors, eager for an update. They didn’t chat much. Lizzie knew that Gigi was wrestling with her own worries and fears and she didn’t want to push the other girl to talk unless she wanted to.
After what seemed like an eternity, Gigi suddenly stood up. “It’s here. Lizzie, his flight has landed.”
Lizzie gripped Gigi’s hand as they approached the area where people from the flight would be arriving. The first passengers came out and, breath held, Lizzie stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the crowd. She looked for the familiar head of hair, the formal posture, his great smile, but as the minutes ticked by and he didn’t emerge, Lizzie’s heart began to sink. As the rest of the crowd dispersed, leaving Lizzie and Gigi standing alone in a sea of not William, a wave of grief shook through Lizzie’s body and she suddenly found herself on her knees. Somewhere nearby, someone was wailing. After several moments, Lizzie realized it was her.
Beside her, Gigi sank to her knees, her own grief visible on her features. Lizzie reached for her and they hugged, clinging to each other desperately.
After a while, Lizzie just felt numb and words flowed from her mouth without thought or connection. “No. William. Gigi. Supposed to be on that plane. Isn’t happening. Baby. Doesn’t know.”
“Baby? Lizzie, what are you talking about?” Gigi was staring at her but all Lizzie could do was wonder how Gigi had managed to string her words into a coherent sentence. “Lizzie?”
Lizzie closed her eyes, taking a deep breath as she tried to assemble her thoughts into something resembling sense. “I’m pregnant,” she whispered finally.
“Does he know?”
Shaking her head, Lizzie closed her eyes again. For some reason it was easier to talk when she couldn’t see. “I found out on Wednesday night. I was going to tell him when he called me the next day but he never… the earthquake…” She opened her eyes, tears flowing freely. “Gigi, what am I going to do?”
Her news seemed to have helped Gigi pull herself together and she stood up, offering a hand to Lizzie and pulling her to her feet as well. “You’re going to let me drive you home and then you’re going to take care of yourself. I know my brother and he’s a survivor, he’s going to come home, it’s just going to take him a little longer than we thought. He probably thought he should stay to help with the relief effort or something. You know how he is. But he will come home Lizzie, and when he does, he’s going to want to know that you and his baby are taken care of.”
Lizzie nodded. What Gigi was saying made sense. Besides, if something awful had happened to him, Lizzie would know. Wouldn’t she? “Okay.”
September 16, 2018
I miss you.
It’s officially been a month since the earthquake in Guatemala hit and you are still missing. I miss you so much that every time I breathe it hurts and I fear it won’t stop until you come back. I’m terrified, William, terrified that you’re out there hurt and needing help and no one is there to help you. Please be okay, William. Please. It makes my heart ache to think about where you might be right now and what you might be going through.
Gigi misses you too, William. You’d be proud of her and how strong she’s been through all of this. She’s hurting just as much as I am, if not more, and yet she’s been there for me. I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through the last 30 days without her. I’m trying to be there to support her in return and I’m very glad we’ve had each other throughout this mess.
I wanted so badly to tell you this in person William, and hopefully I still can, but prepare yourself because soon it won’t just be the two of us. You’re going to be a father, William. That’s right, I’m pregnant. Isn’t that amazing? I had my first doctor’s appointment a few days ago. Gigi came with me, but I wish it had been you there holding my hand and listening as the doctor gave me all kinds of information. I didn’t get to hear our baby yet, that will come next month and I’m sure you’ll be back by then and we can hear our baby’s heartbeat together.
Can you believe we created a life together? I still haven’t quite processed it. You’re going to be such a great father William and I can’t wait until the day I can see you holding our son or daughter in your arms. Our baby is going to be so lucky to have you to love him or her, so you hurry back, okay?
I love you, William.
Come back to us soon.
End Part One
*hands out hugs and ice cream as needed*
Part 2 will begin tomorrow.
Chapter 2: Part 2a: Come Back, Be Here
Wow. Thank you all so much for all the comments and tweets and everything. I was a bit floored by the response to this to be honest. I was incredibly nervous about posting this yesterday. I owe you all vats and vats of ice cream. I really do. Also hugs.
So here's part 2.
There are several people who helped make this fic a reality, namely erinwert, missclaudiaar, mamaleh6994 and ahundredteas. Please see the endnotes on chapter 6 for more extensive details and thank you's but basically all four of them are superstars and you should all shower them with love because they deserve it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Come Back, Be Here
And this is when the feeling sinks in,
I don't wanna miss you like this,
Come back... be here, come back... be here.
- ‘Come Back… Be Here’, Taylor Swift
“This is ridiculous. It’s been over a month. I don’t care what everyone says, I’m going down there and I am going to go find my husband.”
“Lizzie.” Gigi grabbed her arm and gently pulled her sister-in-law back down to sit next to her on the couch. “We’ve been through this. It’s too dangerous. Everything is a mess down there. The infrastructure in one of Guatemala’s largest cities has basically collapsed. Most people still don’t have phones or power. The news has reported an increase in civil unrest. Going down there would be suicide.”
Lizzie’s eyes swam with tears at she looked back at Gigi. “I need my husband home, Gigi. The ultrasound is next week and he needs to be here. Gigi, how can I do this without him?”
Gigi watched helplessly as Lizzie’s shoulders began to shake. Swallowing down her own emotions and trying not to think about her brother and what fate could possibly have befallen him, Gigi rubbed Lizzie’s back and tried to comfort her. “I know this is hard, Lizzie. It’s so hard. But you’re not alone. If William’s not back by next Monday,” Gigi choked back a sob at the thought, inhaled sharply, and continued. “I will go with you. We’ll face whatever comes together, okay?”
“But what about William, Gigi? What if he’s hurt and needs help? Who’s going to be there for him?”
“I wish I had the answers, Lizzie.”
Lizzie regarded her carefully and sat up straighter. “You can’t stop me from going to go look for him. It’s my choice.”
Gigi closed her eyes, gathering her patience. She understood Lizzie’s desire to go rushing down to Guatemala to find William, she felt the same pull, but she knew that it wasn’t a good idea. They’d reported William missing through the proper channels and all they could do now was wait. It sucked. It sucked big time and it meant Gigi had spent a lot of sleepless nights laying in bed worrying about him, but there really was nothing they could do at the moment.
“It’s your choice, but stop and think about it for a moment. What if something happened to you? Or to your baby? William wouldn’t want that.” She met Lizzie’s gaze. “You know I’m right.”
Lizzie slumped forward and Gigi knew that she’d won; this time anyway. “No, he wouldn’t want that.” Lizzie started pacing. “It’s just all this waiting. It’s driving me insane. How can I keep getting up each day and acting like life is normal when it’s so far from that it’s not even funny? I think I’m coping fine and then I see a picture of him, or I walk down a hallway that we walked down together, or something stupid like that and suddenly, I want to curl up in a ball and never stop crying. I’m tired of it Gigi. I just want him to come home.”
“I know.” Gigi went to her and pulled her into a hug. “I want that too,” she whispered, “but right now waiting is our only option.”
“Well it stinks.”
“It does,” Gigi agreed.
Lizzie clung to Gigi for a moment before taking a step back. “You’re so strong, Gigi. I feel like I’m falling apart every two seconds and you’re always there to catch me. Thank you.”
Gigi didn’t know what to say to that. In all honesty, focusing on Lizzie and her unborn child was the one thing that was keeping her sane through everything. It kept her from thinking about —
“Huh?” Gigi blinked, realizing that she’d missed what Lizzie had said. “Sorry, what was that?”
“I asked if you were hungry and wanted some dinner. I have some leftover take-out in the fridge.”
“Sure, that would be great.”
Gigi was about to follow Lizzie to the kitchen when her phone rang. She saw Fitz’s name flash across the screen and answered immediately. “Fitz, hi!”
“Hey, GGD. I just wanted to check in.”
“I’m with Lizzie.” Gigi couldn’t help but sigh as she thought about the conversation they’d just had. “She won’t give up on this idea of going look for him, Fitz.”
“I think I managed to talk her out of it, again, but I’m not sure how much longer I can fight her on this. I want him home just as much as she does.”
“I know you do. This whole situation is horrible and it’s been hard on everyone.”
“What do I do, Fitz? William would never forgive me if I let anything happen to her or—“ Gigi stopped herself, remembering at the last second that Lizzie didn’t want anyone else to know about the baby yet. She wanted to tell William next, and though Gigi had supported that decision a few weeks earlier, the more time that passed without William coming home, the more she was beginning to have doubts of the wisdom of waiting. Still, it wasn’t Gigi’s news to tell. “—anyone else,” she finished lamely.
On the other end of the phone, Fitz fell silent. Then. “I’ve been thinking for a while now that maybe I should go.”
“What if I go look for him? I know Spanish, I can ask people questions and try to find out where he might have been when the quake hit. Check his hotel and all the hospitals.”
“But it’s not safe.”
“Brandon would come with me - we’ve talked about it. Getting the time off work won’t be a problem for either of us. We would just go for a few days and see if we can’t find out anything.”
“You would do that?”
“Gigi, you and Darcy are my closest friends. Lizzie is right. We all need answers and we’re not going to get them if we keep just waiting around for something to happen. I want to help and so does Brandon.”
“There’s a flight tomorrow morning.”
“You planned this.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while but I didn’t want to go unless you were okay with it.”
“Thank you, Fitz. I’ll reimburse you for the last minute plane tickets.”
“You don’t have to do that, Gigi.”
“Please let me. I need to do something.”
Fitz’s voice softened. “Okay, we’ll sort it out when I get back.”
“Okay.” Gigi glanced down the hallway to the kitchen where she could hear Lizzie moving around. Lizzie was going to be so relieved to know that someone was going to look for William. Gigi herself felt a little bit lighter now. “Hey, Fitz, I know you have a lot to do tonight if you’re leaving tomorrow, but if it’s not too much trouble do you think that maybe you could stop by and tell Lizzie the news? I think that might help her.”
“I’ll work it out.”
“Thank you, Fitz.”
October 2, 2018
I feel kind of silly, writing you these letters when I have nowhere to send them, but Jane suggested I try writing to you when I miss you or when I want to tell you something, so I’m giving it a chance. I doubt it’ll be necessary for much longer though. Fitz and Brandon left this morning to go look for you since we haven’t been able to find out anything helpful from the US Embassy in Guatemala. I wanted to go myself but Fitz insisted that it should be him since he speaks fluent Spanish. He’s right, of course. I’m sure my ability to count to ten would be incredibly helpful. I can only hope that Fitz will locate you quickly and soon you will be on a plane back to us.
My first ultrasound appointment is on Monday. Gigi has said she will come with me but I can’t contemplate any reality where you are not there with me for that. Fitz is going to find you before then and bring you home, I know it.
Please hurry home.
Strange sounds awakened Gigi and she stumbled out of Lizzie and William’s guest room in search of the source. She found Lizzie sitting on her bed, her knees curled up to her chest as she sobbed. Gigi cleared her throat and Lizzie looked up, her eyes red and blotchy.
“He’s not here, Gigi,” she said between gasps of air. “The ultrasound is today and William isn’t home yet. I was so sure he would be.”
“I know you were,” Gigi said gently, easing herself onto the bed next to her sister-in-law.
“Fitz hasn’t even called yet.” Lizzie glared at Gigi accusingly. “Why hasn’t he called yet? He’s been gone for almost a week. He should have called already.”
Gigi felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. She hadn’t shared her worries with Lizzie but she’d been wondering the same thing. She told Lizzie what she’d been telling herself for days. “The phones still aren’t working well in Guatemala, remember?”
“Oh right.” Lizzie had stopped crying while they talked but her breathing was still coming in uneven gasps. “What if… Maybe I could change my appointment to later in the week. Give Fitz a few more days to bring William back in time.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Lizzie. Your health and the baby’s health have to be a priority.” Gigi grasped her hand. “I’ll go with you. I can take pictures and video that you can show him later.”
“Okay.” Lizzie frowned. “You slept in the guest room again last night? Gigi you don’t have to stay with me every night. I’m fine.”
She wasn’t, but Gigi wasn’t about to point that out since she’d been staying over nearly every night as much for herself as for Lizzie. In an odd way, being there made her feel closer to William, and her own apartment felt bleak, empty and remote in comparison. The few nights she’d spent there had been ridden with nightmares and sleepless hours where she couldn’t make her mind stop thinking about things that were best forgotten.
It was much better for her sanity if she kept her brain busy, so instead she’d been working harder than ever at Pemberley, fulfilling her own duties as Art Director while also trying to cover some of William’s duties with Lizzie’s help. Together, they had managed to keep everything running smoothly, although, the board was starting to make noises about finding a proxy CEO. So far, the board had been sensitive to her and Lizzie and hadn’t pushed, but Gigi knew that they were on borrowed time and, if William didn’t return soon, the board would appoint someone. Gigi didn’t even want to contemplate that possibility. She couldn’t. The mere thought caused her lungs to burn and her throat to seize up.
Instead, she shifted her thoughts to Lizzie and the pending ultrasound for her unborn niece or nephew. She’d found in recent days that, when she wasn’t working, focusing on Lizzie and the baby kept her mind distracted and made her feel a little less helpless.
“Gigi?” Lizzie was staring at her oddly and Gigi realized that Lizzie had been speaking to her.
“Oh, sorry, was lost in thought.”
“It’s okay. I was just saying that we should probably get ready to go.”
Gigi checked the time. “Yes, we should.”
Forty-five minutes later, they were in an examining room at Lizzie’s OBGYN. Gigi sat next to the examining table, holding her sister-in-law’s hand and watching wide-eyed as the technician prepared Lizzie for the ultrasound. She’d only ever seen these kinds of tests on television or in the movies and it was fascinating to see it in person.
Suddenly, a rapid swishing sound filled the room and Gigi gasped.
The technician smiled. “That’s your baby’s heartbeat. Nice and healthy.”
Gigi met Lizzie’s gaze and noticed tears forming in the corners of the other woman’s eyes. “Wow.” Lizzie’s voice was awed.
They listened to the technician as she pointed to the picture on the monitor and explained what they were looking at.
“Beautiful,” Gigi whispered, forcing herself not to think about how William should have been there to hear his son or daughter’s heartbeat and see his or her first picture. She held her phone steady as she continued to record. At least there would be a record.
“It’s so weird,” Lizzie said afterward. “There’s a life growing inside me. I knew that before today, but now it feels so much more real.”
Gigi felt much the same way. “I think I get why they call it the ‘miracle of life’. I always used to think that phrase was so cheesy.”
Lizzie laughed. “Gigi, it is cheesy.”
It was so nice to hear Lizzie laugh again that Gigi didn’t bother to point out how cheesy Lizzie’s own statement had been. Instead, she hugged her sister-in-law. “Congratulations, Lizzie.”
“Thanks, Gigi.” Her expression was sombre as she pulled away and started to gather her belongings so they could go. “I appreciate you coming with me today. You made it easier for me to do this without William. Thank you.”
At the mention of her brother, Gigi swallowed a lump in her throat. “You’re welcome.” She managed after a beat. “What do you say we go get a late breakfast now?”
A half smile emerged on Lizzie’s face. “Sounds good.”
October 8, 2018
Today I saw our baby for the first time. I wish I could find the right words to describe what it was like. One moment, the screen of the little monitor they use was black; the next, there was our child. It was a little grey blob but we could see the head and the tiny little arms. The best part though was when we heard the heartbeat. It was so much faster than I was expecting and very rhythmic: like a train moving steadily over its tracks (Dad would like that comparison).
I wish you had been there William. Gigi captured it all on her phone though so we can watch it together when you get back with Fitz. It won’t be same, but it will be something.
They gave us a printed picture of the ultrasound earlier and I keep staring at it, tracing my fingers over our baby’s head. I wonder if he or she will look more like you or me. Or if we’ll end up with some strange combination like my red hair with your eyes? It’s amazing the way two people as different as us can come together to create life like that. We created a life together William. Isn’t that phenomenal? As horrible as everything else is right now I can’t help but feel joy about that one little thing. Actually, it’s a huge thing. It’s a bit scary really, the responsibility of it all. But you’ll be home soon and we’ll figure it out together.
I love you, William.
Gigi was in the midst of cooking a nice dinner for herself and Lizzie, when the buzzer to the apartment rang. Her heart thumped in her chest nervously as she went to answer. Could it be news about her brother?
“Fitz!” Gigi exclaimed as soon as she heard the familiar voice on the other end of the intercom. “Come up.”
Lizzie had been napping on the couch, but she sat up immediately at Gigi’s words. “They’re back?”
Gigi nodded and held her breath as she went to open the door. Her hands shook as she twisted the doorknob. Lizzie had followed her and, just before Gigi pulled the door open, their gazes met, and she could see hope that equaled her own reflected in Lizzie’s eyes. After an imperceptible nod from Lizzie, Gigi opened the door.
No one was there yet so Gigi reached for Lizzie’s hand and they waited together. Lizzie’s breath hitched as Fitz appeared in their line of sight. After waving at him, Gigi craned her neck, hoping to see her brother’s familiar form behind him. Next to her, Lizzie was doing the same, yet as Fitz got closer and no William appeared, Gigi felt her heart sink. She gripped Lizzie’s hand more tightly and forced a smile as Fitz reached them.
“Welcome back,” she said in a shaky voice.
“Hey, Gigi, Lizzie.” Fitz’s smile was half-hearted and tired.
“William?” Lizzie asked softly, a tiny note of hope in her voice.
Gigi looked up at Fitz, uncertain she was ready for his answer. Fitz shook his head. “I’m so sorry.”
Everything suddenly shifted into slow motion. She was only marginally aware of Lizzie repeating the word “no” and tightening her grasp on Gigi’s hand as she covered her mouth and started to cry. Instead, she stood frozen in place, not wanting to believe that William hadn’t come back. Gigi felt numb. Empty. Not unlike she’d felt the day her father had died, leaving her and William alone.
Fitz was saying something but all Gigi could hear were indistinct sounds that seemed as though they were coming through a tunnel. She felt like she was trapped underwater in a bubble where everything was muffled and imperceptible.
Somehow, Gigi found herself on the couch next to Lizzie, with Fitz sitting across from them. She couldn’t even remember how she’d gotten there but she was grateful to be sitting. She blinked once, twice, regaining her equilibrium as her hearing returned to normal.
“…looked everywhere we could think of,” Fitz was saying and Gigi forced herself to focus on his words. “We found his hotel first. It was…”
Gigi’s heart raced as he trailed off.
“It was in ruins,” Fitz managed. “Nothing but a pile of rock and dust. We asked around and no one remembered recovering anyone matching Darcy’s description.”
“Thank god,” Lizzie whispered.
“They did find these in the rubble though.” Fitz held up William’s passport and wallet.
“How will he get home then?” Lizzie asked.
“Lizzie,” Fitz said gently, leaning forward. “I’m really, really sorry, but I don’t think he’s coming home.”
“He has to.”
Gigi looked into Fitz’s sad eyes and swallowed hard. “You’re sure? You checked all the hospitals?”
“We checked everywhere we could, Gigi. Things are a mess down there. Hospitals are overcrowded, the infrastructure is a disaster. They’ve only just started to clear the piles of brick and broken concrete everywhere.”
“Without his ID, no one would know who he is.” Lizzie’s voice was surprisingly calm. Gigi wondered how that was possible when everything was falling apart. “He could be at one of those hospitals and no one would know it was him.”
“We thought of that,” Fitz told her. “We walked through every hospital even remotely close to where William’s hotel was. He wasn’t there, Lizzie, I’m sorry.”
“No.” Lizzie shook her head as she went from calm to hysterical in an instant. “Go back. Or I’ll go. He’s out there, he has to be.”
Gigi met Fitz’s gaze again. “What are you saying, Fitz?”
“I’m saying that it’s unlikely William is still alive.” Fitz choked on the last word as Gigi’s eyes filled with tears.
“No. No. He… he… can’t be… d…” Gigi couldn’t bring herself to say the word.
“G, I’m so sorry.” Fitz took her hand. “I wish I had better news, but I think we all need to accept the fact that he’s not coming back.”
Gigi’s shoulders began to shake. “Oh god.”
October 10, 2018
Fitz came back last night and you were not with him. WHY WEREN’T YOU WITH HIM? You should have been with him, William. I was counting on you to come home to me and our baby and you let me down. Where are you?
Fitz thinks you’re dead. He told me and Gigi last night, but there’s no proof, and I can’t help but think that we’re missing something. If only I could figure out what. But you being gone? That’s not it. I know it isn’t. I can’t believe that’s it because if I do I don’t think I will be able to get through today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. There’s a hole in my heart where you should be and I don’t think I’m going to be okay again until you come home.
Last night, I lay in our bed, on your side because it made me feel closer to you, and all I could think about was how you should have been there with me. How badly I wanted to hold you. How badly I still do.
I cried myself to sleep last night, William, and it’s unacceptable to me that it should be this way. You have to come home. I need you. I need you so badly that I can’t breathe when I think about the fact that you aren’t here.
Rationally, I know that there must be a reason for why you’re still not home. Either you’re hurt, or stuck somewhere and you need help, or something else happened that I can’t even contemplate. I’m worried William. Please be okay. Please be safe.
Please come home.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
In the scattered moments when I am actually able to sleep, my whole being cries out for you. Sometimes, when I manage to sleep deeply enough, I convince myself that I can feel your arm draped over my waist and, as I start to wake, there is this brief moment where I believe that I will open my eyes to discover that I am in back in San Francisco, in our bed with you. I can not begin to describe how heartbreaking it is to realize that the dream is not real and that I am still alone, lying on this godforsaken dirt floor wondering when, or if, I will ever be able to find my way back to you.
Then there are the nights where I cannot sleep. Those are the times when I lay awake, listening to the once foreign sounds outside whilst my brain wanders and I try to imagine what you might be doing. Are you curled up on our bed in slumber? Are you lying awake worrying for me? Are you happy? Are you sad? Have you moved on and forgotten about me? The questions tend to compound upon themselves until I reach a point where I am barely able to breathe due to the depth of my yearning for you.
Other times I console myself by dwelling on the happy memories we have. These memories are sometimes so vivid, I feel as though I am living through them again. I’ll hear you laugh and the sound ripples through my ears as though you are right here with me. Those are good days.
On my worst days, my rage at the injustice of our separation wells up within me, and I rail at the universe for the fate that has befallen us. If it were within my power, I would move heaven and earth to get back to you.
I can only hope that you are coping with this better than I am, Lizzie, for I fear that I am going to lose my mind if things do not change soon. I keep telling myself that I need to remain strong, that I have to keep fighting. I will not let these people or this situation break me. If nothing else, I shall be victorious in the fact that I have not been broken.
There are times when I imagine all the ways I might manage to flee this place. Unfortunately these imaginings rarely yield a plan that might actually work. Although, just the other day - I can not remember when exactly, I’ve long since lost track of how long I’ve been here - I came up with what may be the first plausible plan I’ve ever thought. I don’t know if it will work but I swear to you Lizzie, I’m doing everything in my power to get back to you. Unfortunately, options are slightly limited when freedom is a distant memory, and old injuries leave you less than you once were.
I fear I am ceasing to make much sense so I shall tuck this letter away with the others and try once again to sleep.
Gigi felt dazed the morning after Fitz returned from Guatemala. She moved around her office absentmindedly, barely aware of what she was doing. As much as she tried, she couldn’t stop thinking about William or what Fitz had said the night before. It didn’t help that she was exhausted. She had barely slept the previous night.
After Fitz left, she had been bereft, but had tried her best to pull herself together, for Lizzie’s sake. Lizzie had been practically inconsolable, going back and forth between sobbing uncontrollably and insisting that William was alive despite everything. As Gigi had been struggling with similar thoughts of her own, she hadn’t had the heart or energy to argue with her. Eventually, Lizzie had called Jane, bursting into a fresh batch of tears, as she told her sister that she needed her and asked if she could come visit.
Gigi had slipped off to the guest room at that point, not only because she hadn’t wanted to intrude upon Lizzie’s conversation, but because it hurt. She knew it was stupid, but she and Lizzie had grown quite close and she had started to think of them as real sisters. It helped make William’s absence more bearable for her. The reality was, Lizzie had other siblings she could depend on, and Gigi did not. If William really was gone, then Gigi was completely and utterly alone.
The thought filled her with overwhelming sorrow and loneliness, and, just as she had the night before, Gigi curled herself into a tight ball, rocking gently as she cried. After a while, the tightening in her chest loosened, and her sobs abated. She rested her cheek on the tops of her knees, staring out her office window. It overlooked the Pemberley gardens which were one of her favorite things about her office. She’d placed the couch in this spot specifically so she could see the gardens from it.
Gigi let her eyes wander over the gardens, periodically fixating on a random person walking through them, or on the shape of a particular flower or bush. As always, her gaze eventually came to rest on the rose garden. The rose garden had always been her favorite, even as a little girl. She remembered being quite small, probably no older than five, staring at the fathomless, overlapping folds of a yellow rose and deciding it was one of the prettiest things she’d ever seen.
Through the years, her mother had often brought Gigi with her when she tended to the rose garden on select weekends and, as Gigi grew, her mother taught her the “way of the roses”, as she called it. At first it had just been simple things like watering, but as time went on, Gigi’s mother taught her all the tricks - how to prune, what to do about particular bugs, how and when to attach them to a stake or trellis. By the time Gigi was ten, she tended the roses alongside her mother and, after her mother’s death, Gigi had continued to take care of the roses. It had become her own personal tribute to Anne Darcy and it made her feel like there was still a connection between them. The Pemberley gardeners were forbidden from touching the roses, they were Gigi’s domain entirely.
There had only been two periods of time where Gigi had neglected this responsibility. Once, during the aftermath of the George Wickham debacle, and once in the months following her mother’s death, when she had been too sad and angry to face the flowers.
She remembered the day she’d agreed to be custodian of the roses. It was the same day she had found out her mother was sick. Gigi had been a month shy of turning eleven and she and her mother had come out to the rose garden together.
“Gigi, come sit with me, sweetheart,” Anne said to her daughter, patting the empty bit of bench beside her.
Gigi carefully put down the clippers she’d been pruning with and brushed her hair from her eyes, leaving a streak of dirt across her forehead. Anne rubbed at it as her daughter sat beside her.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Gigi squirmed out of her mother’s reach.
“Just trying to get the dirt off your face.”
“I like the dirt.”
Anne laughed and it echoed through the whole garden. Gigi loved it when her mother laughed. “So you do, G, so you do.”
Something about her mother’s tone gave her pause. She rarely called her G anymore. “Mom? What’s wrong?”
“G, I have to go away for a while soon.”
Gigi frowned. “You’re going on a vacation?”
“Not exactly, I… I’m sick G.” Anne stroked a hand over Gigi’s long hair. “I’m going to be okay, but to get better I’ll have to stay in the hospital for awhile.”
Gigi’s bottom lip quivered. People only went to the hospital when they were really sick. “You don’t look sick.Your nose isn’t even red or scratchy.”
“It’s not that kind of sick. I’m sick inside my body.”
“But the hospital will fix you?”
“That’s what the doctors think.”
“How long will you have to stay?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart, probably a long time.”
“Can I visit you?”
Anne nodded. “Anytime you like.”
“I’ll come everyday.” Gigi crawled into her mother’s lap even though she really was too big for it. “I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too, G.” Anne kissed her temple. “I need you to do me a favor though.”
“Should I take care of the roses for you?”
“That too, I wouldn’t trust anyone else to know the way of the roses.” Anne smiled. “But that’s not my favor.”
“I need you to promise me you’ll look after William.”
Gigi frowned. “Why?” Her brother was ancient, why would he need to be looked after?
“Because your brother has a habit of holding everything in. He gets stuck inside his head, especially when he’s upset. I need you to make sure that he talks sometimes, that he remembers to laugh sometimes. Do you think you can do that?”
Anne kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “Thank you sweetheart. The thing to remember about William is that he can be too serious. He likes to take care of everything himself but sometimes he needs a reminder that he’s not alone.”
“He’s not alone, he has me, and you and Dad.”
“I know, G, but he forgets sometimes that he needs to let other people in.”
“Well that’s stupid. I’ll tell him so.”
“Good.” Anne hugged her daughter. “Now about these roses…”
Gigi had tried to keep both of her promises. She had taken care of William as best she could, but now he was gone, just like her mother and her father. One by one, her family members had left her and now, all that was left were her memories and her mother’s rose garden.
October 18, 2018
Jane came to visit this past week. Ever since you went missing she (and Lydia, Mom and Charlotte) has been asking if I needed her to come and I’d refused because I was so sure that you’d come back. But you’re not back and I’m starting to show so I have to tell people about the baby, but I couldn’t face that on my own. Especially telling Mom.
I planned to tell Jane at dinner the night she arrived, but it turned out it wasn’t necessary. She took one look at me and she just knew. It was a relief really, having someone other than Gigi know about the baby. Jane, being Jane, immediately started to fuss and take care of me. You know me, William, I don’t really like being fussed over, but it was kind of nice after all the stress and worry of the past two months to just let her.
She would make me tea and cookies we’d talk for hours, just like we used to when we lived at home. It was nice to have her there to bounce my thoughts off of. That first day, I told her about what Fitz had said after returning from Guatemala. I told her how I was nervous about telling Mom about that and the baby. Jane completely understood. It’s not that I was worried Mom wouldn’t be happy about the baby, she’s been pestering me about giving her grandbabies since I was twelve (Okay, okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you have met my mother, you know what she is like). It’s just that, with all the uncertainty right now, I haven’t been feeling very celebratory about everything, and I knew Mom would want to go all out. Jane reminded me that Mom loves me and wants what’s best for me.
Jane promised to come with me to tell Mom and Dad, and she even called Lydia to have her join us at home so the whole family could be together for the news. So, last Friday, Jane and I drove home together to tell them everything.
Jane was right, of course. Under the circumstances, Mom was more concerned about me and my well being than her urge to dance in the streets and proclaim that she’d be a grandmother again. I know I mock Mom a lot, but I really am lucky to have her. When it really counts, she’s always been there for me. For all of us really. I should probably start giving her more credit for that.
Dad was quietly supportive, as always. He invited me into his study after dinner one night and we talked and then we even cried together. He told me how strong he thinks I am, and how proud he is of me and I admit that it helped, even though I don’t feel very strong right now.
Lydia didn’t say a word, at first. Instead, she just hugged me and told me that she’d be there for me every step of the way. She even offered to move to San Francisco to be near, but I insisted she stay in Portland. She has a life up there with Elliot that she loves and I would never ask her to give that up. Still, it was a thoughtful gesture and I told her she can come visit whenever she likes.
Everyone misses you, William, it’s not just me - you should know that. My family, they consider you theirs now, Gigi, too. We all want you to come home safe. So wherever you are, know that we are all thinking of you and loving you and waiting for you to come back to us.
“Are you ready?” Gigi stood in the doorway of Lizzie’s office at Pemberley. They had a board meeting to attend in less than ten minutes and Gigi wanted to get there early.
Lizzie’s lips stretched into a thin smile. “As ready as I’m going to be.”
As they walked down the corridor together, Gigi felt jittery. This was only her third board meeting, and she still found them to be intimidating. As a primary shareholder in the company, Gigi had always had the right to join the board, but it had only been recently that she’d felt ready to accept that responsibility. William had been with her for the first two, but this would her first solo venture and she was nervous. Probably not as nervous as Lizzie though. The board had summoned Lizzie to this meeting but neither of them yet knew why.
They settled themselves side by side at one edge of the table while the other board members trickled in. As the Board Chair, Samantha Brown, called the meeting to order, Gigi heard Lizzie suck in a breath. Gigi took her sister-in-law’s hand beneath the table, squeezing it reassuringly.
“Thank you for joining us, Elizabeth,” Samantha began, her tone gentle. “I know that you are probably wondering why we asked you to join us today, so I will cut right to the chase.
“First of all, we want to thank you and Georgiana for everything you’ve done since August to keep the CEO office running. We know that you have both been working long hours even though you’ve also been going through an emotionally difficult time, and we want you to know that we recognize and appreciate that devotion.
“Out of sensitivity to you both, and given the uncertainty surrounding William’s absence, we have so far held off on making any decisions regarding the CEO position, but we feel that the time has now come to take some action.”
Lizzie’s vice-like grip on Gigi’s hand had tightened to the point where Gigi could no longer feel her fingertips. Gigi swallowed, she’d known that the board wouldn’t let them continue on as they had been, but she still wasn’t quite ready to face the greater implications of what such a change would imply.
“Starting next week, we shall begin searching for a new CEO. We will accept both internal and external candidates, but Pemberley really does require a full time CEO to function.”
“You don’t believe he’s coming back, do you?” Lizzie accused, her eyes narrowed. “This is his family’s company, how can you just up and replace him like this?”
Samantha looked taken aback for a moment but she recovered quickly. “It is the duty of this board to ensure that Pemberley continues to run as smoothly as it always has. Should William return, we will, of course, reinstate him, but at the moment, we require someone who can do his job full time.”
“So this is temporary?” Gigi asked.
“For now. Should William not return within the year, we may have to consider something more permanent.”
Beside her, Lizzie placed a hand over her slightly rounded abdomen. In a year, the baby would be born and Gigi knew that the thought of William still not being here for that was hurting Lizzie. It hurt her too. She couldn’t think about that now though. Instead, Gigi turned back to address Samantha. “That seems reasonable.”
“Good.” Samantha made a note on a piece of paper in front of her. “There’s another thing, Elizabeth.” She looked at Lizzie kindly. “William set it up so that, as wife, in the event of his absence for any reason, you maintain control of his shares in the company, which includes the right to become a member of this board. As such, we would like to formally invite you to join us, if you so desire.”
Lizzie considered this. “Alright. But only until William returns.”
“Excellent.” Samantha smiled brightly. “Alright, now that we’ve addressed that, let’s move on to the first item of our agenda.”
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
Do you remember the first time we met? I suppose you must, given that you talked about it at length in your video diary. Although I think even you will admit that you were not the most reliable of narrators then. You were determined to dislike me, regardless of what I said or did, so I wonder if perhaps your actual memory of our first meeting is different than that. It never occurred to me to ask you before now.
I digress. The reason I asked is because I do remember it. Vividly. I was annoyed with Bing for forcing me to come with him to a wedding for people I barely knew. Then, he was off dancing with Jane and I was left standing alone, feeling incredibly uncomfortable. As you are now well aware, I was not gifted with the best social graces, and the idea of being forced to make idle conversation with people I did not know was horrifying to me.
Caroline was there, of course, and she certainly kept me company when she could, but she was continually being pulled away to meet this person or that person, so I was largely left to my own devices. It was in one of these alone moments that I first spotted you. You were talking to Charlotte and you were laughing. Something about you intrigued me and I found that I could not pull my gaze away. Your eyes were bright, your cheeks were flushed, and the way your entire face lit up when you laughed made my heart flutter a little even then.
You were stunning Lizzie, a vision of loveliness and beauty beyond compare, and no matter how hard I tried to resist, my gaze continued to be drawn to you throughout the evening. Although I would not admit it to myself then, I was captivated by you, and when, by happy happenstance, we ended up having to dance together, I thought I was the luckiest man in the world.
I was nervous when I walked toward you and suddenly at a complete loss for what to say, especially once you made it clear that you were not pleased with the situation. I made a clumsy attempt at small talk, answering your questions with brevity for fear that I would say something foolish. It is unfortunate that later you overheard my foolish and untruthful denial to Bing. I was a fool, but alas, if the past has taught me anything, it is that we cannot change what already is. Still, though I may not have made the best first impression upon you, you made one upon me. You were smart, determined, and not afraid to speak your mind. For days afterward, I could not get you out of my head, no matter how hard I tried. It was infuriating.
Regardless, that dance, awkward though it was, has become a precious moment to me over the years, if only for the fact that it marked the first time that I was able to hold you in my arms.
What I would not give for a chance to hold you like that again now. For a chance to gaze upon your radiant smile, to inhale your sweet, heady scent, to caress your silky skin.
You are my everything, Lizzie.
I love you.
“Lizzie?” Gigi asked one day. “How would you feel if I moved in here, like officially?”
“You mean like give up your apartment?”
“Yeah. I’m hardly ever there anyway and, with the baby coming, you’ll need help. It doesn’t really make sense to keep paying rent somewhere I’m not going to be.”
“But William will be back soon. By Christmas, I’m sure of it. It’s really not necessary.”
Gigi sighed. She was trying to accept the fact that William was gone and that the chances of him coming back were slim to none, but Lizzie’s refusal to even hear that he might be dead made it difficult. “Lizzie,” she said gently. “William isn’t coming back. I hate it just as much as you do, but I think we need to face the fact that he’s de—“
“Don’t say it.” Lizzie’s eyes were pleading. “Please, Gigi, I know what you and Fitz and everyone else thinks but I can’t, I won’t, accept it.”
“No. Gigi, don’t you see? He never gave up on me, even after I publicly rejected him, he still held on to hope. How can I not do the same for him? How can I give up on him? Something’s wrong but he’ll get back to us, I know he will.”
As much as Gigi wanted to believe that, the fact remained that William was currently gone and Lizzie was expecting his child soon. “I don’t want to argue with you, Lizzie,” she said after a long silence. “The truth is, I don’t want to be alone right now and, until things change, you’re going to need help. Me moving into the guest room just makes sense.”
Lizzie’s shoulders deflated slightly. “Are you sure that’s what you want, Gigi?”
“I’m already practically living there anyway.”
“That’s true.” A small smile appeared on Lizzie’s face. “Okay, if that’s what you want to do, I won’t stop you. It’s nice having someone else around.”
Several days later, Gigi was alone in her room, unpacking some of the boxes from her previous apartment when she came across a well loved stuffed bunny from her childhood. William had given it to her for her third birthday and it had always been her favorite. Gigi hugged it to her chest, the same way she had as a child, and suddenly all the emotions she’d been holding inside spilled to the surface.
Her knees grew weak so she sank onto the bed, her entire body beginning to tremble as she allowed the sobs to overtake her. The last time she had sobbed like this had been on the day of her father’s funeral. She’d been fourteen and she had thought that she wouldn’t be able to ever feel happy again. Unlike their mother’s death, which had loomed after months of failed treatments, during which she had gotten progressively sicker; their father’s death had been quick and sudden. None of them had seen the heart attack coming.
William had been away at college and Gigi remembered her hand shaking as she called him, sobbing the news into the phone. He’d come home that very same day and he had taken care of all the arrangements with Aunt Catherine’s help, while Gigi looked on helplessly, feeling empty and broken-hearted.
It had been William who had consoled her after the funeral, taking her into his arms and telling her that she wasn’t alone and that they would get through this together. She had felt safe with him, had trusted him completely and, in the years that followed, had found him to be right. In the absence of their parents, they became each other’s support and, though William was often frustrating in his over protectiveness of her, she had taken comfort in knowing that she could always depend on him.
Now that he was gone, she felt like she was spiralling through empty space in free-fall, with no one to catch her. Lizzie was clinging to the hope that William was still alive, but Gigi realized that she couldn’t do that. She knew what it was like to cling to false hope. She had done it when their mother was dying and it had nearly destroyed her. The facts were the facts. William was gone and the sooner she accepted that, the sooner she would be able to stop spiralling and land on her own two feet. Gigi hugged her stuffed bunny more tightly and whispered, “I love you, William, but I need to say goodbye,” before surrendering herself to her tears once more.
November 28, 2018
We are going to have a son. That’s right, we’re having a boy! Today, I had another doctor’s appointment and I was asked if I wanted to know the gender of the baby. At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know, not without you there to find out too, but then I remembered that, if I knew, I could at least tell you this way.
We’re going to have a boy, William. I’m sorry, I know I said that already but I’m still a little bit in shock. There’s something about knowing the gender that makes everything feel so real. I’m due in April, have I mentioned that yet? I can’t recall. April 17th to be exact, so you have about five months to get back to us in time.
What should we name him, William? We could carry on the tradition and call him William, after you and your father and grandfather. Although that could get confusing. He might need a nickname in this case. Or we could go for something more unique like Ryker, Wyatt, Gage, Quentin, or Kermitt. (Yes, I just did a google search for names, hush). There’s also more common names like Thomas, Luke, Michael, George… no, I think we’d best avoid that one. Anyway, you get the idea.
Honestly, I’m staring at these lists and there are so many options it’s overwhelming. How do people choose? It’s a wonder more babies don’t end up nameless for months on end. Then there’s also middle names to consider. Do people even do middle names anymore?
Okay, I’m getting myself worked up over names, I think it’s time to step away from google and take a break. Maybe I’ll ask Mom how she chose all of our names. She’ll be delighted to share her opinion on that and I’m actually really curious to find out. The only thing I know about our names is that Mom asked Jane and I our opinions on Lydia’s name before she was born and I really wanted them to call her Kitty. Lydia finds this story hysterical and, when we got a cat, she insisted on naming it Kitty because of that. I was like three, it’s not like I knew better and I just really liked cats. They were cute and furry and had whispers (as I called them back then).
Regardless of what we end up deciding to name him, he’s our son, William. Hurry home, I can’t wait for us to meet him together.
As the holidays approached, Gigi found it more difficult to stick to her acceptance that William was gone. Christmas had always been a time they spent together and, even though they had been spending that time with the Bennets for several years now, Gigi felt his absence strongly.
Mrs. Bennet had insisted that Lizzie and Gigi come to stay for the whole holiday and neither of them had objected because being around family was better than remaining in the apartment where reminders of William were everywhere.
Not that there weren’t also reminders of him at the Bennet house but, from the moment they arrived, Mrs. Bennet had kept them both busy with preparations. Well, she’d kept Gigi busy, anyway. Lizzie, she insisted on fussing over and, after a day, Gigi could tell that Lizzie was ready to explode.
“I’m pregnant, Mom, I’m not an invalid,” Lizzie finally snapped after Mrs. Bennet refused to let her chop the nuts for the cookies she was baking.
“I know, dear, but this time of year is stressful and heaven knows you’ve been through enough in the past few months. You need your rest.”
“I am resting. See? I’m sitting. But my arms are free. Let me be useful.”
Mrs. Bennet opened her mouth as though she were going to protest but, as she took in the expression on her daughter’s face, she softened, and slid the bowl of cookie batter towards her. “Fine, you can stir in the flour, but no knives, they’re sharp.”
Gigi coughed in order to hide her snort but Lizzie shot her a death glare anyway.
When Mrs. Bennet left the room a few minutes later, Lizzie let out an exasperated sigh. “Good lord, you’d think I was five years old again. She didn’t treat Jane like this when she was pregnant.”
“That’s because I was smart and stayed in New York.” Jane entered the room holding her one year old daughter, Eleanor.
“Jane! You’re here!” Lizzie’s eyes shone. Abandoning the cookie dough in order to hug her sister and her niece, Lizzie took Ella from Jane and began to talk to her quietly, while Jane removed her coat and came over to to greet Gigi.
“Gigi, it’s so good to see you.” She hugged her warmly.
“Thanks, you too! Where are Bing and Charlie?”
“They went to open up Netherfield. I was going to keep Charlie with me, but he insisted on helping his dad. He idolizes Bing, it’s adorable.”
The remainder of the holiday was lively and warm despite William’s absence. The Bennets had gone out of their way to make it a joyful time and, though Gigi missed her brother and knew that Lizzie was missing him too, they managed to get through the days without too much heartache. Gigi appreciated the way that she was included in the family rituals and, on Christmas morning, she was moved to tears when Mrs. Bennet presented her with a hand knit stocking with her name on it. It matched the ones Lizzie, Jane and Lydia had and it gave Gigi a sense of belonging. She hugged Mrs. Bennet to thank her and when Mrs. Bennet hugged her back, Gigi felt safe for the first time in months. She bit her quivering lip as she pulled away, but a few tears escaped anyway and Mrs. Bennet wiped them for her.
“I know it’s hard,” she told Gigi softly. “I know you miss him. We all do, but I want you to know that you will always have a family here, no matter what.”
“Thank you.” Gigi’s vision blurred. “That means so much to me.”
December 25, 2018
Merry Christmas William,
I never thought you wouldn’t be here for the holiday and, when I first realized that it wasn’t going to happen, I was angry. Not with you, but with the universe and the circumstances that have conspired to separate us the way that they have.
I thought that the holiday was going to be terrible and, while I have missed you every second of every day, I have managed to get through it in one piece. Mom has been surprisingly great through all this. She’s coddling me to the point of ridiculousness but, aside from that, she’s been incredibly supportive. We had a really nice talk yesterday actually, just the two of us.
Fitz, Gigi, your Aunt Catherine, the Board; they’ve all been insisting that you’re dead, but Mom was the first person to validate my belief that you’re alive. She told me that it’s okay to trust my intuition, but that it shouldn’t hold me back from still living. I can tell that she doesn’t believe you’re coming back either but, unlike everyone else, she didn’t try to convince me to accept that you’re dead. Instead, she said she will support me through this, and that she will help me in whatever way that she can.
It’s funny. I used to think that Mom didn’t understand me at all but, lately I’m beginning to believe that she understands me better than anyone. Maybe that’s part of what being a mother is all about? I’m not sure. I worry about that sometimes when I’m laying awake in the middle of the night. About not knowing how to be a mother. I know there’s so much more to it than just taking care of basic needs. What if I’m not good at that William? What if don’t change his diapers right, or I forget to feed him, or I don’t love him enough, or he’s embarrassed by me?
I’m scared, William. I’m scared that I’m going to do it wrong. I’m scared that you’re not going to be back before he’s born and that we won’t get to experience this together. I’m scared that something awful has happened to you, and you’re scared and injured somewhere and you need help, and I can’t give it to you.
The worst part is that I can’t do anything about these fears. If you’re in trouble, I can’t help you. If I screw up our baby somehow, I won’t know how to fix it. I feel helpless and I hate it.
I shared some of these thoughts with Mom, and you know what, William? She made me feel better. She told me that being a mother is a learning experience, and that I probably will make mistakes, but I’ll learn from them. She said that she’s not at all concerned about her grandbaby not being cared for. She told me she knows that I love him and that’s the place to start. She’s right. I do love him. Our little tiny son who is currently nameless and trying to bruise me from the inside (he’s quite the kicker let me tell you), means everything to me. I love him so much that it hurts.
Just as I love you.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
I have been thinking a lot about family lately. Our current circumstances have left Gigi very alone. Is she okay, Lizzie? Are you looking out for her? I worry about her even when I’m there, but not being able to see her and know for myself that she’s okay, my mind starts to imagine the worst. If it were in my power to prevent her from ever experiencing pain again, I would give that to her. She’s been through so much already, and I confess, I haven’t always been the best brother to her.
When our mother got sick, I was nearly sixteen and I was so angry. I hated seeing my mother, the strongest woman I knew, look so weak and frail. It rattled me and caused me to clam up. I shut my father and Gigi out, and would barely talk to them except to snap at them, or tell them to go away. I would bang things around and slam doors. I fear I was not a very pleasant person to be around. Our father was a mess. The woman that he loved was dying before his very eyes. At the time, I did not understand what he was going through but, in hindsight, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for him.
So Gigi, she had no one to support her properly. She was ten at the time and she needed me to be there for her, but for months I wasn’t. If I were a man who held onto regrets, this would be one of them. I should have been there for her Lizzie, and I wasn’t. At least not at first.
Everything changed on the day that I realized my mother wasn’t going to get better. I will never forget that day. Gigi and I were visiting Mom together, and Mom looked more fragile and broken than I had ever seen her. At one point, she looked at me over Gigi’s head and her eyes said it all. That she couldn’t fight anymore. I found out later from Dad that they’d told her that morning that her cancer had spread. There was nothing more they could do for her. But in that moment, an unspoken understanding passed between us as we both looked at Gigi. She was chirping away about her recent swimming lesson and I realized that she didn’t know. She had no idea that her whole world was about to come crashing down on her, on all of us really, and suddenly my anger and frustration faded and I just wanted to protect her from all of it.
From that day on, I stopped shutting her out. I would read to her at night, the way Mom had, and I would listen to whatever crazy or inane stories she wanted to tell me. In my own way, I tried to make up for the way I’d neglected her when Mom first got sick. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to protect her from the reality of what was happening to our mother, I knew I couldn’t. It was happening and she needed to know. Mom, Dad, and I told her together. She was so brave, Lizzie. She was so young, and yet, she didn’t cry or get hysterical. She hugged Mom and told her she loved her forever and offered to read Mom a story.
It was that night when we got home, when Mom and Dad couldn’t see her, that I found her in her bedroom, hugging her favorite stuffed bunny as she sobbed. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what to do. I was just going to leave her be, but she saw me. She said my name in a shaky voice and I couldn’t leave her. So I sat with her and hugged her while she cried. I confess I shed more than a few tears of my own that night. When Gigi could cry no longer, she asked me to read to her. Eventually she fell asleep and I didn’t want to leave her. That urge to protect her from more hurt and pain returned and I stayed with her until I too fell asleep.
My desire to shield Gigi from pain has never fully gone away, despite the fact that I have sometimes been the cause of that pain. I would say that I hope that my current absence is not hurting her, or you, but I am not naive enough to believe that. I have long since lost track of how much time has passed since I first embarked upon my trip to Guatemala. I gave up counting because it became easier not to know.
The time and distance does not change my love for you or for Gigi though. I think about you both every day and I dream of returning to you. Perhaps, one day, the universe will smile upon us all and get us out of this wretched situation. Until then, I remain steadfast in my love for you both. You are my family and that is the most important thing to me in all the world.
Gigi shifted in her chair as Samantha Brown called the first board meeting of the New Year to order. Lizzie sat across from her. There were dark circles visible beneath her eyes. Gigi knew that she hadn’t been sleeping well and had been growing increasingly concerned. Every time Gigi tried to ask her about it however, Lizzie brushed it off. Gigi made a mental note to bring it up at Lizzie’s next doctor’s appointment, before transferring her attention back to the meeting.
After Samantha finished briefing them on the last quarter’s financial reports, she turned to the dark haired man seated to her left. “As many of you already know, in early December we appointed our new interim CEO, Matthew Hastings. He’s already begun his work for Pemberley, but I wanted to formally introduce him to you all.”
Matthew stood, his ears reddening as he waved quickly before nearly falling back into his chair. Gigi turned away slightly to hide her amusement at his awkwardness. Meeting the board was always a little weird. “Uh. Hi everyone,” he said, his voice a little rough. “It’s really nice to meet you all.”
Across the table, Lizzie bristled and her face grew closed and sombre. Gigi understood. They had both met Matthew already, but Gigi had been avoiding him as much as she could. She’d even gone so far as to leave lengthy notes for him about things so she wouldn’t need to speak with him in person.
The thing was, though Matthew seemed like a decent person and he was definitely qualified for the position, it was difficult knowing that he was filling a role that should have been her brother’s. As much as Gigi was trying to accept and acknowledge that William really was gone, she couldn’t help but feel conflicted seeing someone else doing his job. It made the whole situation feel real and permanent.
“Gigi,” Matthew was saying. “If it’s not an inconvenience, would you be able to clear some time this week to bring me up to speed on some of our current projects?”
Gigi sucked in a sharp breath and nodded. “Sure.” She winced at the high-pitched tone of her voice, cleared her throat and tried again. “Sure. Email me some potential times and I’ll confirm tomorrow.”
Matthew smiled. “Great.”
When the meeting ended half an hour later, Gigi spotted Matthew making his way over to her. She quickly said goodbye to Lizzie and darted from the room. As she closed the door to her office and leaned against it, Gigi exhaled loudly. She knew she was being ridiculous. Whether she talked to Matthew or not, it didn’t change the fact that William was gone. It didn’t change the fact that she missed her brother and wished things were different. It didn’t change the fact that Lizzie was less than three months away from giving birth to her brother’s child and he wouldn’t be there to see it. It didn’t change the fact that Pemberley Digital was her family’s legacy, was Williams legacy, and it needed a leader. Regardless of how she was feeling about William, she needed to be professional. She needed to stop acting like a child and face her responsibilities, no matter how difficult or painful it was going to be. She needed to be an adult about this.
She considered going to find Matthew to apologize for her rudeness but she wasn’t ready. Tomorrow, she would be an adult. Today, she needed a little more time to process the rapid changes happening in her life. Today, she needed an escape.
Gigi pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialled. “Fitz! How do you feel about Mexican, tequilla, and dancing?”
“I feel very good about them.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“Tonight? We both have work tomorrow.”
He had a point, but Gigi didn’t care. She was feeling reckless and she needed to let off some steam. “Yeah, but it’s fine. We don’t have to stay out late.”
“Okay.” Fitz said after a long pause. “I’ll see you at seven then.”
January 16, 2019
Today, we had our first board meeting with the new CEO, Matthew Hastings. Keeping myself together during his formal introduction was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. It feels wrong to have someone other than you in that role.
I found myself resenting Matthew, because he’s here and doing your job and you’re not. I know that’s not fair to either of you, but I can’t help it. I hate that you’re not here, William. I hate it so much that sometimes I want to kick and scream and throw things. Next week, I go into my third trimester and still, there’s no word from you.
Gigi doesn’t know it, but every week I call the hospitals in Guatemala, just in case you’ve turned up somewhere. I’ve even learned enough Spanish to ask the right questions. But every time it’s the same, “No, él no está aquí.” (1). I just wish you could tell me you’re okay. I just wish I knew that for sure. The not knowing is driving me crazy.
I lie awake at night wondering about you. I imagine all the potential horrible things that could have happened, dreaming up scenarios where we find you and you come home. I know it’s not a good idea to dwell on these things, William, but I can’t seem to help it. The closer we get to the baby coming, the more I need to know, and the more my chest seizes up at the thought that you might not be there for our son’s birth.
I feel like I’m getting bigger every day, William, and my body is getting achy and tired. This is when you should be here with me, rubbing my back, or putting your hand over my belly at night, feeling our son practice his kicks. Instead, you’re god knows where, and in who knows what kind of trouble, and I just want you home. Please come home, William. We need you. I need you.
Gigi was incredibly late for work the next morning. She rushed from the elevator to her office, hoping no one would see her slipping into her office at half past eleven in the morning. She closed the door, sighing with relief, before jumping nearly a foot when an unfamiliar voice said,
Swallowing hard, Gigi turned towards the direction of the voice to see Matthew, sitting casually at her desk as though he was supposed to be there.
“What are you doing here?” She snapped. Gigi’s head was pounding and she felt a bit dizzy and she just wanted to sit down in the privacy of her own office.
Unfazed by her rudeness, Matthew held up a blue sticky note. “I was just leaving you a note to ask if you know where the file on the Qydra Project is.”
“It should be in the pile I left on your desk a month ago,” she said through clenched teeth. She just wanted him to leave so she could be alone.
“Well, it’s not there now.”
Gigi thrust her bag and coat onto a nearby chair, crossed her arms and glared at him. “I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.”
“I expect nothing. I merely thought you might know where it was, since you had been helping on that project before I was appointed.” Matthew leaned back in her chair, which only caused her irritation to flare up. Couldn’t he just go already?
“Well, I don’t.” She stalked toward the desk, intending to ask him to vacate her seat, when she tripped and somehow managed to end up on face down on the floor.
Matthew was at her side in seconds, so at least she’d managed to accomplish part of her goal. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she grumbled, refusing to accept his offered hand. She wobbled a little, but managed to right herself. She squared her shoulders and tried to salvage what was left of her dignity. “Now if you don’t mind, Matt,” He winced and Gigi felt a burst of satisfaction knowing that she’d hit a nerve. “I have work to do.”
He opened his mouth as if to protest, but promptly closed it and maneuvered around her, allowing her to make her way to her desk. He was nearly out the door when he turned suddenly, studying her carefully. “Gigi, are you sure you’re alright?” he hesitated, his voice softer when he spoke again. “I know that having me here can’t be easy for you given the … situation, but —“
“I’m fine.” Gigi dropped herself into her chair. That was so much better. “I’m sorry I was late today, it won’t happen again.”
“That’s not why —“
“Please.” Gigi tipped her head back. “Can you just go? I have a lot of work to do. I’ll let you know if I come across the Qydra file.”
Matthew stared at her for a beat and then nodded. “Thank you. If you need anything I’m right down the hall.”
As soon as he finally left and closed the door, Gigi rested her forehead on her desk and swallowed hard. The room had started to spin during the end of that conversation and her brain felt like it was trying to burst out of her skull. Mexican, tequila, and dancing had seemed like a great idea last night, but today, she regretted everything. Especially falling on her face in front of her new boss. She winced and tried to block the whole embarrassing scene from her memory. Maybe when her head was clearer, she could think of a way to avoid seeing him ever again. Yes, that was a good plan. For now, she just needed to survive the day without any more humiliating encounters.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
The heat here is unbearable. It fills your lungs so thickly that, some days, it’s difficult to breathe. I will be dripping with sweat during the day because of it, but then at night, it cools and I find myself shivering. I have a small blanket, though it does not do much, so both my days and nights are rather unpleasant.
The heat reminds me of our trip to Europe after our wedding. Do you remember that? The days we spent traipsing through England, France, Germany and Italy together are some of my fondest memories. I was thinking last night about our last night in Venice. You had heat stroke after walking who knows how many miles that day, sight seeing and shopping in the midst of a heat wave, so I left you in our hotel to forage some food for us.
I do not recall if I ever told you this, but as I wound my way down the narrow pathways, weaving in and out of tourists and locals alike, I found this tiny little pasteria in a little alleyway. It was just off the main street, but unlike all the other restaurants I’d passed, there was no crowd of tourists here, just locals. I took my time perusing the menu, before ordering in my best Italian. The woman who took my order disappeared,and when she returned, she looked at me shrewdly and said in English, “You have the look of one touched by love. Where is your amore?”
I told her you were ill and she immediately vanished again, returning with chicken soup and a collection of “medicinal herbs” which she refused any payment for. She told me to take good care of you, and to cherish you because love is a blessing to not take for granted. She left to serve other customers after that, but that conversation has resonated with me ever since.
Every day, every moment that we have ever spent together, Lizzie, has been a gift. Yes, even the ones where you hated me and talked about me on your vlog. It’s our story, Lizzie, and as rough as our beginning may have been, I would not change one minute of it. That experience made me a better man. It made me a better boyfriend, a better husband. If I had still been the man I was when we first met, I fear I would have taken you for granted.
My mother used to tell me that anything worth having is worth fighting for; that you need to work for your happiness, it’s not just rewarded to you. As a child, I did not fully grasp the meaning of this sentiment, but I think our whole relationship has been an expression of this. We fought for each other then, and we fought for each other in all the years and months leading up to our marriage, and again during it. And I don’t know about you, Lizzie, but I am fighting for you now. It may not seem like it. I know I am far away and unreachable right now, just as you are to me, but everyday I wake up with the intention to win this battle. I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I remain resolute in my determination to return to you.
I love you, Lizzie and I promise you, I will never give up.
March 29, 2019
Today was my final day at Pemberley before my maternity leave. It was weird handing off all my work to someone else, but it was also oddly freeing. I’ve been exhausted lately, and extremely uncomfortable. People tell me that’s normal at this stage of pregnancy but knowing that it’s normal doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. I’m slow and achy and I can’t see my feet.
It’s a relief though, knowing that I won’t have to go in to work again on Monday. Ever since I started showing, everyone has been giving me these awful, pitying looks. They think I don’t notice, but I do, every single time. Every time it happens, it’s like a stab to the heart, reminding me that you’re missing and I’m about to have your child and you’re not here to experience that with me. It’s like people look at me and they think, “I’m so glad that’s not me,” or, “How depressing, what terrible luck,” and I’m sick of it. I’m tired of trying to pretend it doesn’t bother me, I’m tired of the constant reminder that you aren’t here.
It’s hard, William, because on the one hand, I am so happy about this baby and I am excited to meet our son. But on the other hand, I’m terrified and alone and my chest seizes up every time I think too hard about the fact that you’re not back yet. Our son is due in just over two weeks and you’re not home. I’m trying not to dwell on that fact right now. The doctor says stress is bad for the baby, so I’m making a conscious effort to focus on the positives as much as possible.
Like the nursery that Gigi has been helping me put together for our son. We cleared out that tiny little room you called your office but never used, and Gigi painted it. I chose a pale yellow and it makes the small space look bright and cheerful. I didn’t want to go with traditional blue because I don’t believe our son should grow up with those kinds of gender stereotypes.
Mom’s flying out next week. She insisted she be here for the baby’s birth and I’m glad that she’s coming. Gigi has been a huge help in getting everything ready and coming to lamaze classes with me, but it’ll be nice to have Mom here She’s been through this before and something about knowing she’ll be there makes the whole thing a little less terrifying. Jane and Lydia wanted to come too, but neither of them could get time off work, which is unfortunate, but also probably good because I have no idea where they would sleep.
Your son is politely dancing on my bladder again, so I think that is my cue to sign off.
I love you.
Gigi flopped onto her bed, exhaustion permeating every inch of her body. Between a hectic schedule at work that included working on a project with Matthew, Lizzie’s mother visiting, and Lizzie’s looming labor, she was just plain worn out.
Having Mrs. Bennet around for the past week had actually been a godsend, since she had insisted on taking care of meals and housekeeping, freeing Gigi up to put the finishing touches on her future nephew’s bedroom. Lizzie hadn’t seen it yet, but Gigi had painted a small mural on the wall above the baby’s crib. It was just a simple thing - a little underwater scene with aquatic creatures like a little family of turtles, several colorful seahorses, and some random tropical fish, but she’d worked hard on it and she hoped Lizzie would like it.
Too tired to even crawl under the covers, Gigi burrowed into her pillow and drifted off to sleep.
She was awakened several hours later by someone gently shaking her shoulder.
“Gigi, darling, wake up.” It was Mrs. Bennet.
“Mmm?” Gigi asked sleepily.
“The baby’s coming.”
“Now?” Adrenaline shot through Gigi’s body at those words and she sat up, suddenly wide awake.
“Yes. Lizzie’s waiting for us in the other room.”
Gigi got out of bed and started to gather her clothes. “Okay, I’ll be right there.”
Mrs. Bennet smiled and left the room, leaving Gigi to get ready.
Eight hours and thirty seven minutes later, Gigi sat in a chair next to Lizzie’s hospital bed holding her nephew. He was wrapped in a blanket and a tiny white hat covered the fine, dark hair he’d been born with. Gigi stared down at him, marvelling at his squashed little nose and tiny little fingers. As he sighed in his sleep and nuzzled into Gigi’s chest, she instinctively held him more tightly.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”
Gigi glanced up at Lizzie and nodded, before returning her gaze to her nephew. “He has William’s eyebrows,” Gigi whispered after a long pause.
“So he does.” Lizzie chuckled lightly, then quickly fell silent
Gigi raised her head to meet Lizzie’s gaze and a moment of unspoken understanding passed between them. They were both missing William, but they needed to dwell on the positives rather than his absence.
“I was thinking of continuing the tradition and naming him William. What do you think?”
Tears prickled in Gigi’s eyes. “I think that’s a great idea. Would you give him a nickname?”
Lizzie nodded. “I’ve been thinking about shortening it to Liam.”
“Liam.” Gigi looked down as the baby stirred in her arms. She smiled. “I think it suits him.”
“Hi Liam,” she said softly. “I’m your Aunt Gigi.” The baby opened his eyes, his calm blue irises looking straight at her, before he let out a small milky belch and went back to sleep.
April 9th, 2019
Our son was born in the wee hours this morning. At 6:23 AM, to be exact. Honestly, I don’t remember most of the labor; it’s a blur of pain and Mom and Gigi helping me stay calm. What I do remember is being utterly exhausted and elated when they put him in my arms.
He’s perfect, William, from his teensy little toes, to his dark head of fuzzy hair, to his warm milky scent. They let me hold him for a while before they took him to be weighed and cleaned, but then they brought him right back. He’s been sleeping and eating on and off all day. Right now, he’s asleep in Gigi’s arms next to me, and she’s drifted off too. She’s already such a good aunt to him. He’s very lucky to have her. We both are.
I finally chose a name. I’ve decided to go with William, but call him Liam for short. I purposefully haven’t chosen a middle name. I’m saving that for you when you return to us.
Mom went to find us some real food, since none of us has eaten since last night, and she’s just come back so I’d better go.
I wish you were here.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
Sometimes I envy you for growing up with the kind of family that you did. I know your parents and your sisters drive you crazy sometimes, but you are so incredibly lucky to have them.
I guess maybe it is because I lost my parents at such a young age, but I sometimes envision us having a large family one day. At least three or four children, who are a bit closer in age than Gigi and I were, so that they can grow up with the kind of closeness that you have with Jane and Lydia. Not that Gigi and I aren’t close, it’s just different. For so many years, I was not only her brother, I was also her parent, and that changed the dynamic between us entirely.
We always used to talk about starting a family in the abstract. We always thought we had so much time. Now that I’ve been reminded of how fragile time is and how quickly things can change, I wish that perhaps we’d given more thought to a family sooner. On second thought, perhaps not. That would mean that we’d not only be separated from each other, but you’d be on your own with our children. They would be without their father and I cannot bear to think about that.
I will instead fill my dreams with thoughts of the kind of family you and I might be fortunate enough to create one day. I will dwell on what a wonderful a mother you will be to our children. I will think about how proud we will be when our children start school, and when they graduate, and when they start to have families of their own. There’s a cornucopia of future possibilities there, and that is what I wish to dream about in the depths of night, when I miss you more than I ever thought possible.
To be continued…
(1) Translation: “No, él no está aquí.” = “No, he’s not here”
So I am hoping that after reading this chapter those of you who are concerned about how it will end feel a little better. I really do not want to spoil anything for you but I will say this: of the 90 fics I have posted here, not a single one of them has an ending that is NOT happy. Extrapolate from that what you will.
Also, have some more ice cream. And hugs. And before you ask, yes, I'm crying with you guys. My heart is just as broken as yours are.
Chapter 3: Part 2b: Keep Breathing
Thank you for all the lovely feedback. (Yes, even when you yell at me!) I'm pleased that so many of you are enjoying Gigi's story in this as well as Lizzie and William's. And yes, I know you probably have questions. Some of those questions will be answered soon. (Also a huge thank you to everyone reading this even if you haven't left feedback. I love you all).
There are several people who helped make this fic a reality, namely erinwert, missclaudiaar, mamaleh6994 and ahundredteas. Please see the endnotes on chapter 6 for more extensive details and thank you's but basically all four of them are superstars and you should all shower them with love because they deserve it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dancing slowly in an empty room,
Can the lonely take the place of you?
I sing myself a quiet lullaby.
Let you go and let the lonely in
To take my heart again.
- ‘The Lonely’, Christina Perri
The month following Liam’s birth was filled with visitors, sleepless nights, and plenty of warm baby cuddles. Between projects at work and the baby, Gigi was completely exhausted. Mrs. Bennet had stayed for a week after Liam was born, and after she’d left, Lydia and then Charlotte had come to stay. Jane was due to arrive with her own children the following week, and much as Gigi loved her, she was looking forward to things slowing down a bit. Lizzie too seemed to be overwhelmed and would sometimes take Liam to her room alone, leaving Gigi to entertain whatever visitors were there.
Gigi knew that everyone was well meaning. They had come because they cared about Lizzie and were worried about her coping with a baby on her own while she was still grieving for William, but the lack of privacy and alone time was starting to get on her nerves. Which was why she had started staying at work late into the evening, preferring the quiet of her office to the bustle of the apartment.
She came home late one night, surprised to find it completely dark and quiet. A quick glance through Lizzie’s open bedroom door told her that it was empty. Feeling mildly concerned, Gigi went looking for her sister-in-law, locating her in the rocking chair in Liam’s room. Gigi stood in the doorway unnoticed as Lizzie used her foot to rock gently while Liam nursed. It took Gigi a moment to realize that Lizzie was talking to him, her voice a faint whisper.
“Your father is one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, Liam. He’s quiet and shy on the surface, and once I mistook that for rudeness, but once you break through that he’s amazing. Intelligent, opinionated, caring. He’s going to love you so much when you finally get to meet him.” Lizzie kissed the top of Liam’s head and fell silent, staring vacantly at the darkened window.
Gigi blinked back tears as she pictured how things could have been if William were there, getting a chance to hold his own son. A sudden swell of anger rose within her and she slipped to her own room so she wouldn’t upset Lizzie. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. William shouldn’t have had to miss out on his child’s birth. Lizzie shouldn’t have to be on her own. Gigi shouldn’t have been left with no real family of her own. The universe was a dark and cruel place and she felt an urge to start throwing things. Instead, she threw herself face down onto the bed, letting her tears overtake her. She hated feeling like this, so helpless and lonely. Sometimes, she thought she was perfectly fine, or at least that she was coping well and, other times, she felt like everything was closing in around her. William was gone, she’d accepted that. At least she was trying to. But would it always hurt this much?
June 3rd, 2019
Liam is nearly two months old now and it’s amazing how much he’s grown in such a short time. His little body is so long and he still doesn’t have control of his arms, so he flails a lot. Just the other day, he managed to give me a nosebleed with a stray fist. We were both in need of changing after that.
He’s beautiful though. I’m fairly certain he has your chin and your eyes, though I hear that babies’ eyes can change as they age, so we’ll see if they remain that color. When I nurse him, sometimes I fixate on weird details. Like the other day, I spent ages staring at his eyelashes, full of awe over how long and delicate they are. Or sometimes I will just close my eyes and focus on how he smells like powder and milk.
I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love him. He’s the most precious thing in the world, and whenever I think about how it took both of us to create him, I’m overwhelmed by just how perfect and special he is. I have been telling him about you, even though I know he can’t really understand yet. In a weird way, it makes me feel closer to you, to share some of our stories with him.
The other day, I shared with him some highlights of our first real date. Do you remember that? It was the day after my birthday and you took me out to the fanciest restaurant in Longbourne. I was so nervous when I was getting ready to meet you. I remember calling Jane and having a mini-panic attack about what I should wear. Thankfully, there are benefits to having a sister who works in fashion, even when she lives on the other side of the country. I felt a little more confident in the outfit she helped me put together, but the nerves were still there. All the months of anticipation and confusion leading up to you showing up on my doorstep the way you had, left me anxious that I was going to screw this up.
William, it’s crazy, but I think even then I was already a little in love with you, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself. I was too scared that things weren’t going to work out, or that I’d idealized you too much in my head in the weeks following my sudden departure from Pemberley. Anyway, when you arrived to pick me up, and you had that bright smile on your face, my nerves faded.
You were a perfect gentleman throughout the evening, of course, holding doors open and taking my coat. Several months earlier, these things would have bothered me; I would have taken them as condescension and you trying to show off how well bred you were. But that wasn’t the case anymore. Now I knew that this was just the way you were. You were trying to be respectful, you were not making a statement about your status.
As we sat down to our dinner, any fears I had that we wouldn’t be able to sustain a conversation were alleviated within seconds. You teased me about my reading taste and I challenged you to give John Green a shot. I remember laughing a lot that night. Internally, I marvelled at how funny you were, which was something I hadn’t expected. I was seeing an entirely different side to you. A side I’d had a glimpse of during my time at Pemberley, but not to the degree with which I was seeing you that night. By the end of our dinner, I was completely hooked on you and any remaining doubts I had disappeared.
Little did I know then that it was just the beginning. That in the coming months I would come to know you as well, if not better than I knew myself. You were trustworthy, respectful and dependable. You were resolute in your convictions and determined in the things you set out to attain. You were both sensitive and strong. You were someone I could talk to about anything, without fear of judgement or mockery (which is ironic considering our rocky beginning). In short, William, you were everything I never knew that I needed in a partner, and I came to love you with all of my heart.
Liam is stirring and it’s time for his next feeding, so on that note I will end this letter.
“Hello?” Gigi mumbled into her phone, not awake enough to open her eyes and see who it was that was calling her at the inhumane hour 6:00 AM.
“Good morning, Georgiana!” her Aunt Catherine said briskly. “I am enroute to the airport. I trust you shall be there promptly at half past nine?”
“Hmm?” Gigi sat up, rubbing her eyes.
Catherine tsked. “Did you not read my email?”
Email. Right. She’d sent it last week to let Gigi know she was coming to visit. Gigi frowned. Was it Tuesday already? “No, I read it. I will be there.”
“Excellent. Oh yes, and please inform Elizabeth that I wish to have luncheon with her this afternoon.”
“Okay…” Gigi trailed off as the line went dead. She sighed and leaned back against her pillows. She had completely forgotten to warn Lizzie that Aunt Catherine was coming. This was going to be a fun morning.
Sure enough, Lizzie was less than impressed when Gigi told her the news at breakfast.
“Today? She’s coming today?” Lizzie’s eyes were wide with panic. “But I barely slept last night, Liam just wanted to eat and fuss, fuss and eat. He finally fell asleep half an hour ago.”
“I’m sorry, Lizzie. I should have told you sooner.”
“Yes. You should have.” The tension eased from Lizzie’s face as she exhaled. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t change it now.” She took a bite of her toast. “What time are you picking her up?”
Lizzie wrapped a finger around the tips of her hair and stretched it out so she could see it. “Then I guess I’d better go shower while Liam is sleeping. I probably shouldn’t have milk and spit up in my hair at lunch with your aunt.”
Gigi let out a single laugh, thinking of what her aunt would say about the state of her own hair. “That’s probably a good idea.”
“I should probably bathe Liam when he wakes up too. Get him dressed up to meet his great aunt for the first time.” Lizzie stood up. “I think I’ll go get ready. Thanks for breakfast.”
“No problem.” Gigi watched as Lizzie disappeared in the direction of her bedroom, before letting her shoulders slope forward and pressing the palms of her hands to her eyes.
Catherine had only visited once since William’s disappearance and it hadn’t gone well. Catherine had been incredibly blunt about her belief that William was dead, and had accused Lizzie of being selfish in her adamancy that William was coming back. Lizzie had been in a state for days afterward, barely even coming out of her room to eat. Gigi sincerely hoped that Liam’s presence would prevent that from happening this time.
July 16th, 2019
Your Aunt Catherine is the most infuriating, pig headed, and impertinent woman I have ever had the displeasure of encountering. I’m sorry. I know she is your family, but I’m furious with her. How dare she come in here and start trying to tell me what to think and feel? She has no right, no right…
She had the audacity to show up here today - with barely any warning I might add - and tell me that she had “indulged my ridiculousness for long enough and it was time for us to lay you to rest.” What does that even mean? Besides which, I know you’re alive. Nothing anyone says will convince me otherwise.
Your aunt was unimpressed with my refusal to bow to her whims. She’s insisting that it’s time to say goodbye and that next month, on the anniversary of the earthquake, we will have a memorial for you.
As if it’s not hard enough for me already to accept the fact that you’ve been gone for a year, she wants me to go to a memorial for you? No. No freaking way am I doing that. It’s pointless and a waste of money and you know what? I’m your next of kin, not her, so I should have a say in this, and I say absolutely not.
UGH. What gives her the right to come in here and start mandating things that are none of her damn business? As if the whole memorial fiasco weren’t bad enough, she also had the nerve to criticize my parenting. She held our son for all of three seconds and then spouted off a list of complaints. “He’s too skinny,” “He’s not dressed warmly enough,” “You should really wash his hair.” Seriously? I bathed him this morning before she even got here and, regardless, it’s not her concern. What does she know about babies anyway? She’s only ever had that insufferable dog to look after.
ARGH! I thought writing to you would calm me down, but I’m even more frustrated than I was before. And she’s still out there in the other room. Probably waiting to pounce on me again and impose her ridiculous ideas on me. I swear to you, I am not giving in to this insanity. I am your wife, and damn it, that counts for something.
Aunt Catherine was gone. She had breezed in, making declarations about memorials and accepting William’s death, before swooping out again, leaving chaos and turmoil in her wake.
Lizzie, who had fumed through pretty much all of Catherine’s visit, remained stubborn and steadfast in her belief that William was coming home. Gigi watched her sister-in-law from across the room before joining her on the couch.
“Lizzie,” she said gently, taking a deep breath and plunging forward with words she knew Lizzie didn’t want to hear. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, but we need to face the facts.” Gigi swallowed. “My brother is dead.”
“No! You take that back, Gigi.” Lizzie shifted away, her glare hot with fury. “He’s not dead, I would know if he was dead.”
“I want to believe that Lizzie, I really do. But I can’t. I can’t keep pretending he’s coming back. I need to move on.”
“Move on? What? You’re just going to forget your brother like that?” Lizzie was on her feet now, pacing.
“No. Of course not. I’ll never forget him, Lizzie.” Tears threatened to fall but Gigi fought them back. She needed to get through this conversation. “But I can’t take the uncertainty anymore. It’s been a year.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Lizzie spat back. “You think that doesn’t haunt me every night when I’m lying awake in our bed alone? You think I don’t miss him every minute of every day? Because if so, you’re wrong.”
“Lizzie,” Gigi pleaded. “I know you’re hurting and I know you’re not ready to let go. But I am. I need to.”
Lizzie stopped pacing, her body rigid as she fixated on Gigi. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I think holding a memorial next month is a good idea. I need it and I think you do too.”
“No.” Lizzie crossed her arms. “You can do what you want. If you want to waste your time and money on a pointless memorial, then go ahead, but I want no part in it.”
“Stop trying to convince me. My mind is made up. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my son is awake.”
As Lizzie stalked from the room, fat tears rolled down Gigi’s cheeks.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
One of my fondest memories of my mother is from a family holiday that we took a few years before she got sick. We were in London and Gigi, who was still quite small, was tired and whiny after days of walking and exploring the city. So one day, in the middle of our trip, Dad stayed with Gigi and took her to a nearby park, while Mom and I went off on our own.
She took me to the South Bank, and I recall that, at first I was horrified by all the people. There were so many of them and we had to keep diverting around them, which my thirteen year old self found quite irritating. My mother though, her eyes were vibrant and bright as she took it all in. She kept pointing out all these little things to me, like the views across the water, or the various bridge designs and, before long, her enthusiasm overpowered my sullenness, and I started to see past the annoying tourists.
Then we came to the newly constructed Globe theatre, and I confess that I grew rather excited. I had just discovered Shakespeare the summer before, and I had read a book on the history of the Globe, so for me to see it then, it was like magic. Mom was delighted to see my excitement and I remember her taking my hand and leading me to the box office, where she purchased two standing tickets to Henry V for that afternoon.
It was the first Shakespeare play I had ever seen live, and I saw it in Shakespeare’s Globe with my mother. I’m certain my eyes must have been three times their size for the entirety of that afternoon. We had a spirited debate about the play afterward while enjoying hot chocolates at a nearby cafe afterward. It was the first of many literary debates that my mother and I had. They became a tradition for us after that. We’d pick a piece of literature to read independently and then, when we were both finished, Mom would make us hot chocolate and we’d pick it apart. Sometimes we agreed and sometimes we didn’t, but those literary conversations were some of the best moments between us. I treasured every word and can still recite more than half of my mother’s arguments, even the ones I disagreed with.
After Mom passed away, I never found anyone who could debate literature the way that she could. Not until I met you. I suspect that was part of my initial draw to you. All those evenings at Netherfield, when we used to argue over Russian literature, were inspiring to me. They reminded me of my mother in a way that I wanted to remember her. This was one of the greatest gifts you ever could have given me, and I have always appreciated that about you.
Gigi woke on the morning of August the 16th feeling oddly numb. It had officially been a year since her brother had vanished. She allowed herself a moment to let that sink in. A year had passed since she’d woken to the news of the earthquake and waited anxiously with Lizzie to hear news. In that year, a lot had changed. She’d given up her apartment, moved in with Lizzie, her nephew had been born, William hadn’t come home. It was all too much.
Ever since her argument with Lizzie about the memorial, Gigi had avoided the subject with her entirely. If Lizzie wanted to live in a state of perpetual denial, that was her prerogative, but Gigi needed to do what was right for herself. So she’d called Aunt Catherine, and together they had planned a memorial for William.
Much to Lizzie’s dismay, her whole family had arrived earlier in the week for the memorial. Gigi had looked on silently as each of them had tried to talk Lizzie into attending, but so far, it hadn’t made one iota of difference.
Pushing thoughts of Lizzie from her mind, Gigi absently went through the motions of getting dressed and ready for the service, before making her way to the kitchen. Raised voices caused her to pause in her tracks.
“For crying out loud, Jane. He’s. Not. Dead!”
“I know you believe that, Lizzie. I know you do, but what if you’re wrong?”
“This is ridiculous. I’m not wrong, Jane. William is alive and he will come home. Holding a memorial is stupid.”
“Listen to me, Lizzie. The memorial is happening today, whether you like it or not, and I really think that if you don’t go, you’ll regret it.”
“Pfft. I won’t regret it. I’ll feel like a fool for going when he comes home.”
“Jane, don’t you see? If I go, it’s like I’m saying that everyone is right and—” Lizzie voice cracked slightly. “They’re not. I just know they’re not. He’s alive and he’s out there, somewhere, and he will come home and when he does, I will happily tell all of you that ‘I told you so’.”
“I forgot how stubborn you can be when you want to be.” Gigi heard Jane sigh. It took a lot to make Jane Bennet sigh, so Gigi knew she must be at the edge of her rope. “Fine. If you won’t do it for yourself, at least do it for Gigi. William was all that was left of her immediate family. She needs this closure, and she needs you today.”
Gigi held her breath. Jane was right, she needed Lizzie there, but she wasn’t up for the battle,so she had given up trying to convince her. Maybe Jane would get through.
“Stop saying was. I told you he’d not dead.” Gigi’s shoulders sagged. If Jane had failed, then all hope was lost. Lizzie said something else that Gigi didn’t catch.
“So you’ll come?”
What? Gigi’s eyes widened.
“It’s not like you’re giving me much choice.” Lizzie sounded annoyed but resigned. Gigi suddenly felt about ten pounds lighter. Jane was a miracle worker. “But I still think the whole thing is a waste of time and money. It’s completely insane and ridiculous.”
“Think whatever you want in your heart, Lizzie. Just go and support your family.”
“Okay. But I’m only doing this for Gigi. I don’t need this.”
Lizzie stormed past Gigi without noticing her, and once she was gone, Gigi slipped into the kitchen where Jane was leaning against the counter, sipping a cup of tea.
“Thank you,” Gigi said softly.
“You heard that?”
“I’m sorry.” Jane set her cup down and came over to hug Gigi. “I know this has been hard on you, and Lizzie’s bullheaded nature isn’t helping you right now.”
“It’s okay.” Gigi pulled out of the hug and poured herself a cup of coffee. “I understand where she’s coming from, I do. But I’m glad she’s coming today.”
“You know that we didn’t just come to support Lizzie today, right? We’re here for you too, Gigi.”
“I know, but it’s nice to hear.”
“It’s true. You’re our family, too, and we’ll do whatever we can to help you through this.”
Gigi swallowed. “Thank you, Jane.”
August 16th, 2019
I wasn’t going to go to the stupid memorial that Catherine and Gigi planned for you. The whole thing was unnecessary and ridiculous, but in the end, Jane convinced me to go, for Gigi’s sake. It was a weird experience. People kept looking at me with pity, and then with disdain because I wasn’t crying hysterically. Obviously, I am sad that you’re still not back, and I miss you like crazy every second of every day, but you’re not dead, so I see no reason for me to get all hysterical over the memorial. I’ve done more than my share of crying in private anyway.
It was a nice memorial, I suppose. I haven’t really been to any others to compare it to, but there were flowers and a large photo of you was set up at the front of the room. Several people went up and shared stories about you. Fitz even had everyone laughing with a story about how you’d once gotten lost together during a hiking trip in college. As soon as Catherine found out I was actually coming, she asked me to speak, but I refused. The only reason I was there was for Gigi, and to say anything would have been endorsing the whole ridiculous thing. Gigi didn’t speak either, instead she remained between Jane and me, hugging Liam to her chest while she cried quietly.
Afterward, there was a reception, which I really didn’t want to go to. Neither did Gigi - I think the service was enough for her - but Catherine expected us both to fulfill our family obligation to our guests, so we made a short appearance before escaping early to come home.
We ended up sitting together in the dark. Gigi told me some stories about you as a little boy, and how she remembered you reading to her all the time. I shared a few stories of my own, and in the end, we cried together. The thing is, as tough as I pretended to be at the memorial earlier today, it was hard. No matter what I think in my heart, being there felt final. I didn’t let myself feel that until I was alone with Gigi, but the truth is, William, deep down, I’m terrified that everyone else is right. It’s been a year and we haven’t heard a word. It hurts my heart to even think about it, but what if they are right? What if you really are gone forever?
No. I can’t think like that. I won’t. I need to stay positive, for my sake and Liam’s. As for Gigi, if she needs to believe that you’re gone, then I can give her that, but I can’t believe it for myself. It’s too horrible to contemplate. I need to keep believing you’re alive so I can keep getting out of bed each morning, and keep looking after our son. That’s more important than having everyone else believe that I’m right. They’ll catch on when you finally come home. Make it soon if you can? I love you.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
I believe I have already told you this, but I keep a tally along the base of a corner wall in this ruddy room I’m in. Today, I counted them up and surely my calculations must be incorrect, for if they are not, we have been parted for nearly nine hundred and four days. Nine hundred and four days since I have seen your face, or heard your voice, or held your hand.
That would mean that it has been nearly two and a half years since the earthquake, where everything went sideways and both our lives were turned upside down. It feels to me as though time has been passing both quickly and slowly at the same time.
Two and a half years. I can’t imagine the pain and worry that I must have put you though. I am so sorry and I wish that I could fix it, that I could change it. I despise being so powerless, I despise the fact that everything is so far outside of my control. I just want to be back with you in San Francisco, living our lives the way we always planned.
Are you happy, Lizzie? I do hope that you have found a way to be happy in the midst of all this. Your happiness is so important to me. What must you think of me? Given how much time has passed, surely you must believe that I am no longer alive? Have you moved on? Found someone else to share your life with? As selfish as it is, a part of me hopes that this is not the case and that you are waiting for me to come back to you. At the same time, you deserve so much more than that, so another part of me hopes that you have found a way to move on.
I am a man of contradictions today, it seems. I both want you to wait and want you not to wait. It is confusing even for me. I suppose it’s safe to say I do not know what I want, other than to come home, and you are my home, Lizzie.
I want to come home.
The apartment was quiet. Lizzie had gone to bed early with Liam, who was teething and cranky. Gigi flipped aimlessly through the television channels before giving up and tossing the remote aside. Ever since William’s memorial, she’d felt driftless, like she didn’t really know what her purpose was anymore. Lizzie barely needed her help with Liam most days and, though Gigi was busy at work, it wasn’t challenging or thrilling to her. It just was.
She was restless and she wanted something more but couldn’t decide what that was. Sometimes she thought it was maybe because she was lonely, that she wanted a lasting relationship. She’d dated a few men over the years but never had anything worked out for more than a few months. Before William had vanished, she’d been signed up for all the online dating sites but hadn’t found anyone she connected with, and she hadn’t checked those sites in months. For a moment, Gigi contemplated trying again now, but that wasn’t what she wanted either. She was so over awkward dates and small talk. She wanted her life to mean something. Wanted to feel like she was living, or at least doing something more than, well, nothing.
Grabbing her phone, Gigi called Fitz. Maybe he’d hang out with her; they could go dancing or something, let off some steam. Anything that wasn’t spending yet another night in her room, thinking about how much she missed her brother. When Fitz’s voice mail came on, she made a face and threw the phone onto the couch without leaving a message. She was on her own then.
Well, whatever then. Making up her mind to go out anyway, regardless of the late hour and her current lack of companionship, Gigi got dressed up, put on her highest and flashiest heels, and slipped out of the apartment quietly, being careful not to wake Lizzie or the baby.
She drove to the Haight, and after getting lucky with a parking spot, she wandered down the street to a club she’d enjoyed when she was in college. As she wove her way through the impressively thick crowd (considering it was only a Tuesday night), several people smiled at her appreciatively. She smiled back and continued her journey to the bar. Dance music blasted loudly through the room at a decibel that was clearly testing the limits of the speakers, and colorful spotlights illuminated the darkened room.
Gigi ordered herself a Vodka Tonic and downed it quickly, leaving her empty glass on the bar before making her way onto the crowded dance floor. The alcohol made her feel less adrift and she tipped her head back, eyes closed, letting the music filter through her as she started to move to the beat.
As the night wore on, she danced for hours; sometimes alone, sometimes with other people, sometimes taking a break to let someone buy her another drink. Her feet were aching and she was starting to feel a bit dizzy, yet for the first time in months, she felt free. Free of her concerns about Lizzie and the baby, free of the constant ache in her heart caused by the absence of her brother, free of the endless lists of things she had to do at work. She lost herself in the music and the dancing, barely caring who she was dancing with. When the bar closed and one of her most persistent dance companions asked if she wanted to go home with him, she agreed immediately. What good was being alive if she didn’t take a risk every now and then?
October 9th, 2019
Liam is six months old today, can you believe that? He’s getting so big now and he can almost sit up on his own. He’s getting really good at rolling over and he loves to roll from one end of a room to the other now. Gigi and I have had to baby proof the apartment because everything goes in his mouth. Everything. Pamela in the Pemberley childcare center was telling me the other day that she thinks he’ll be crawling soon. He’s already hard to keep up with just with the rolling, I’m a little concerned about what he’ll get into once he can move on all fours.
I was worried about going back to work, but he’s adjusted really well to the Pemberley Childcare Center, and the people who work there are fantastic. I’m able to go visit him on my breaks which I love, but it’s also been nice to get back to work. As much as I love Liam, the long days alone with him were starting to get to me. There was nothing else to keep my mind off of you and I was starting to drive myself a little bit nuts. Having work as an outlet has really helped me avoid dwelling too much on my fears and worries.
Liam is such a joyful baby which is something I’m so grateful for, especially given how stressed I’ve been. I think he picks up on it sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Or maybe he’s just happy to counter my inner turmoil? I don’t know. I do try to keep my emotions in check around him, but it’s hard sometimes. I’ve given up trying to talk about you with Gigi because it always ends in an argument. We basically have silently agreed to disagree when it comes to you. So that means Liam is the only one I can talk to about you. And I do. I’ve told him dozens of stories about you, about us. It’s become a bit of a tradition before bedtime. I don’t know if he really understands what I’m saying yet, but he smiles whenever I say your name and I like to think that it’s because he knows you’re his dad.
PS - below is Liam’s handprint. They had the paints out at daycare the other day and made these with all of the kids and I thought you’d like it.
Gigi willed her eyes to stay open as she stared at her computer screen. She had a deadline for the artwork on one of her projects, but she had been struggling all day to stay focused because she was exhausted. She’d been out late the night before, and the night before that and well, a lot of nights lately. Thankfully, no one had caught her sneaking in late that morning after she’d slept through the alarm at Todd’s. Or was it Ted’s? It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t be seeing him again anyway.
She would be seeing Matthew soon though if she didn’t get her act together and finalize the Qydra logo. Ugh. She groaned, inwardly cursing herself for drinking that fifth long island iced tea the night before.
Somehow, miraculously, she managed to finish the logo before three. She knew it wasn’t her best work but, given the fact that she basically wanted to crawl under her desk and sleep, she was happy with it. She emailed it to Matthew and the Qydra producer, then leaned back in her chair. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for like ten minutes, she’d feel more human and could get started on her next project.
A knock on her door startled her awake. Her office was almost completely dark. How had it gotten so late? Gigi checked the time, her jaw dropping as she realized it was past seven. Her ten minute nap had somehow stretched to nearly four hours. Crap.
There was another knock.
“Come in.” Gigi wondered who was still here at this hour.
“Oh good, you’re still here.” It was Matthew. Gigi fleetingly hoped she didn’t have drool on her chin, or something equally embarrassing that would give away that she’d been asleep.
“Uh, yeah, just taking care of some things.” Gigi shuffled a few papers on her desk but she could tell he didn’t really buy it.
He raised his eyebrows and slid into the chair across from her desk. “I wanted to talk to you about the Qydra logo.”
“What about it?” Gigi tried to keep her voice calm, but below the desk, her hand was shaking. Did he know?
Matthew scooted his chair closer and handed her a printout of the logo. “You see this text here? The producer would like some other color options.”
Oh. Was that all? Gigi exhaled. Thank goodness. “Sure. What colors were you thinking?” She woke up her computer and pulled up photoshop. “I could do it right now.”
Over the next half hour, she created several versions of the logo in different colors. Matthew stayed the whole time, offering suggestions. When they had three alternate versions they were happy with, Gigi printed them out.
“How’ve you been doing?” Matthew asked her while they waited for the printouts.
Gigi regarded him warily, wondering why he was asking. Was this his subtle way of talking to her about the times she’d been late for work recently? Or all of the days she’d skipped in the last month because she’d been too hungover to come in? “I’m fine. Why?”
“I know it’s not easy losing a sibling.”
“You’re right, it’s not.” Gigi huffed. “I’d really rather not talk about it.”
“I respect that, but I understand what you’re going through and, if you ever need someone to listen, I’m right down the hall.”
Gigi tensed, her nails digging into the palms of her hands as she clenched them tightly. “You understand? How can you possibly understand what it’s like to have your brother, your only living family, go missing? To wonder for months if he’s ever coming home? To have a sister-in-law who is so convinced he’s going to return, that she refuses to listen to anyone else, even when it’s clear that he’s not coming back? To feel like nothing in your life is within your control? Tell me Matthew, how could you possibly understand?”
Matthew regarded her steadily, seeming completely unaffected by her tirade. “Six years ago, my brother was in an accident that put him in a coma. He started to get better, they were even preparing to transfer him to rehab, and then one night he just died. No warning. So I have been where you are right now, Gigi, and I may not relate to all the rest of it, but I absolutely understand what it’s like to lose a sibling.”
All the air felt like it had been sucked out of her lungs. Of all the things she had expected him to say, it hadn’t been that. Still, she was feeling petulant and she didn’t want him to think he’d won, so she crossed her arms protectively across her chest and met his gaze. “I’m sorry to hear that, Matthew. But I am fine. Just tired.”
“If you say so.” Matthew didn’t sound convinced. “My offer still stands. If you need to talk, about anything, I’m willing to listen.”
“I won’t, but thank you.” Gigi stamped over to the printer, picked up the logo printouts, and handed them to Matthew. “Here you go. Are we done?”
“Yes. Thank you for staying late to tweak these.”
“No problem.” Gigi opened her office door, hoping he’d take the hint and leave. She was feeling much better, thanks to her unplanned nap, but she was eager to get out of there.
Matthew hesitated a moment then nodded and walked past her. “Goodnight, Gigi.”
Gigi closed the door behind him and leaned against it while debating if she should go out again or just go home.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
If the disembodied radio sounds I heard filtering through the bars earlier today were accurate, apparently Christmas is near. Provided my Spanish is correct, I heard part of a Christmas carol. It wasn’t a melody I recognized, but I heard the words ‘voy camino de Belén’, which I believe means ‘I’m on my way to Bethlehem’.
Regardless of whether it is Christmastime or not, the holiday is on my mind. I was thinking about the first time we celebrated Christmas together at your family’s house. Do you remember that? Of course you must. It was our first Christmas together as a couple, and your mother had coerced you and Jane into coming home and bringing Bing and I with you. Gigi too, a fact for which I will be forever grateful.
I vividly remember your rants about it. You thought your mother was being ridiculous and you feared she would spend the entire holiday making hints about marriage and babies (Okay, I will admit that you weren’t entirely wrong on that count, Jane and Bing got it way worse than us though).
So that was how, a few days before Christmas, we found ourselves in Longbourne. I have to say, I am still puzzled as to how your mother managed to convince Gigi to stay at the house in your old room whilst we stayed at Netherfield with Jane and Bing. I suspect it may have had something to do with the way your mother immediately took to her. I’m afraid Gigi never benefitted from much of a mothering touch after Mom died. Gigi was only eleven then, after all, and Dad, well, he tried to do right by her, by both of us, but his approach was more stern and less gentle and loving than what Gigi was used to from Mom. I myself was mostly at a loss for what to do with her. She was fourteen when Dad died, and at twenty, I was not equipped to support a grieving teenager. I was barely coping with everything myself. My point is, the kind of mothering and fussing that your mother offered Gigi was something that she lacked through much of her formative years, so it was appealing to her to stay in your family home.
I digress. That Christmas was one that I will never forget. Your family was so incredibly warm and welcoming to all of us, and though some of your traditions were more, shall we say, uncouth than I am used to, there was such heart and love behind everything. To think that I once thought your family to be shallow and trite. They are, in fact, quite the opposite.
Your father took me aside before Christmas dinner. I am not certain that you know this actually, because he did it when you and your sisters had gone to fetch something for your mother, and I do not recall telling you afterward. So, he invited me into his study, which I understand is quite rare, and he thanked me. He said he had never seen you so joyful and relaxed, and that he thought I was good for you. He told me that the kind of love he saw between us was unique and special, and that we should cherish every moment, even the ones that are difficult. We had more talks like this in years after that and, I confess, they’ve come to mean a lot to me. Your father is a quiet man, like me, but a profound one, and I quite respect his opinion. He gives excellent advice.
The Christmas before our wedding was one of the most memorable conversations I ever had with your father, though. He told me that he knew how difficult these kinds of events were due to the absence of my parents. He shared with me the story of his own parents’ premature passing. Then he said that he knew it wasn’t as good as the real thing, but should I wish to, he would be happy for me to consider him a father figure, and that his wife felt the same way. He included Gigi in this as well, said that, as far as he and his wife were concerned, we were family. I confess I may have been a little emotional at that point, but I cannot even begin to express how much that meant to me, and still means to me. It made the fact that my parents were not able to witness our wedding a little bit easier to bear.
Christmases with your family have become one of my favorite things, and so today, whether it truly is Christmas or not, know that I am thinking of you, Gigi, your parents, and your sisters with fondness in my heart.
I miss you beyond compare.
January 15th, 2020
Your son, it turns out, is a climber. Today at lunch, he was restless in his high chair, so Gigi took him out and set him on the floor and, do you know what he did? He crawled over to one of the other chairs, managed to get himself onto it, and attempted to get up on the table.
He’s sleeping right now, which is why I’m even able to write this letter - it’s impossible to get anything else done when he’s up. Even making dinner is a challenge, and lately Gigi hasn’t been around as much to help. I’ve gotten very skilled at cooking one handed. Also, the high chair sometimes works to keep him occupied and safe while I’m cooking, but he gets crabby if he’s in there for more than ten minutes, so I have to be quick.
The good thing about being so busy is that I’m not able to dwell on your absence as much. That doesn’t make it better, just easier to get through each day. The nights are still the hardest for me. Lying in our bed alone at night is when I miss you the most. Sometimes I’ll hug your pillow, breathing in deeply and hoping that some of your scent might still linger. I know it’s ridiculous to expect that, after all this time, but I can’t help it. The more time that passes, the more I fear I’m going to forget the little things about you. Your smell, the way it feels when you hold my hand, the sensation of your lips against mine. All I really have of you right now are my memories and I fear that those might fade. Which is why each night, as I lay in bed, awake and missing you, I pick a moment from our relationship to relive in my mind. I’ll close my eyes and try to imagine everything about whatever memory it is and I go over every detail in the hopes that it will cement the recollection in my mind.
Last night’s memory was the first time I told you I loved you. Do you remember that night? It was the summer before we got engaged and we were staying at Netherfield for a few weeks with Jane, Bing and Caroline. It was not entirely unlike the time Jane and I stayed there when our mother ‘renovated’ the house, only this time I didn’t loathe you. (If I’m being completely honest with you, and with myself, I didn’t entirely loathe you the first time around either. That period of time was actually when I first began to see a different side of you, a side that deep down, I liked, but I was bound and determined to see the worst in you, so anytime you displayed a quality that I liked, I would purposefully look for something to hate. I’m not proud of this, but there it is, the truth).
Getting back to that summer. This time it was different. We’d been dating for over a year and we were comfortable with each other. I had long since made peace with Caroline and, though I wouldn’t consider us friends, even now, we were at least friendly - and not in the fake way we were that first year. Anyway, I’d known for a while that I was in love with you, but I hadn’t known how to say the words. You’d made it clear how you felt about me, but I had no idea how to tell you that I felt the same way. Every time I thought I had it figured out, the moment would pass or I would chicken out. I think I was scared that once I said it out loud, everything would change.
In the end, it happened naturally and completely unexpectedly, which I think is probably best. We were alone in the library at Netherfield; I can’t remember where Bing, Caroline, and Jane had gone, but the house was empty. I was reading the latest Game of Thrones book, for which you mocked me mercilessly, I might add, and you were doing something at the desk. The radio was playing silently in the background, when suddenly, the song we’d danced to at the Gibson wedding came on. I looked over at you, wondering if you remembered and, when our eyes locked, I knew that you did. Without breaking eye contact, you set your pen down on the desk, held out your hand and asked me if I wanted to dance.
I found myself in your arms a few seconds later and, unlike ‘the most awkward dance ever’, you held me close and we moved in sync to the music. I could feel your warm breath against my cheek, could hear the blood rushing through my ears as my heart pounded rapidly in my chest, could smell the musky scent of your cologne. You were looking down at me with utter adoration and respect, and suddenly the words I’d held in for so long came bubbling to the surface. Even if I were to forget the rest of these details, I am certain that I will never forget the kiss you gave me. The words had barely escaped my lips before yours were crushed against mine.
It was different from the many kisses we’d shared before that moment; sweet and tender, while at the same time passionate and full of emotion. It’s hard to put into words that don’t sound completely absurd but, basically William, that was one of the best kisses we ever shared. My favorite moment though was after the kiss, when you whispered your own declaration into my ear. Hearing the words meant so much more than merely knowing that they were true.
The song ended but we stayed where we were for a long time before moving on to express our love in ways that best remain private memories.
Like the song says William, However far away, however long, I will always love you.
“Are you aware of what day it is?” Matthew barged into Gigi’s office without even knocking.
Gigi glared up at him from the website mock up she’d been working on. “Are you aware that it’s customary to knock before bursting into someone else’s office?”
“Gigi,” Matthew said through gritted teeth. “I do not have time for your sass right now. Just please, please tell me that you did not forget to submit the completed graphics for the Imaginary Fears trailer yesterday.”
Gigi’s eyes widened. “What? But those aren’t due until February 11th.”
Matthew flopped into the chair across from her and regarded her wearily. “Gigi. Today is February 12th.”
“No. No it’s not, it’s only Februa — oh.” Gigi stared at her calendar in disbelief. How had she managed to screw that up? “Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap!” She minimized what she was working on and started clicking on the Imaginary Fears files. “They’re basically done. I just need to fix one thing and then I can send them off.”
“Okay, good.” Matthew’s shoulders relaxed but he remained seated, watching her shrewdly while she worked.
“You don’t need to supervise me.” Gigi snapped as she started typing the email to go with her graphics.
Matthew raised an eyebrow. “Apparently I do.”
“Oh please, don’t start.” Gigi hit send. “Look, they have them now, crisis averted.”
“That’s not the point.”
“For crying out loud, Matthew, it was one little mistake.”
Matthew sighed. “It’s not just that, Gigi. It’s the random sick days, coming in late, you’re often hungover.”
“Are you seriously lecturing me right now?” Gigi stood up and leaned forward to glare at him. “This is my family’s company. I always get my work done on time. Okay, fine, just this once I was late, but I’ve never missed a deadline before.”
“I don’t care about the deadline, Gigi, like you said, you fixed it. I’m worried about the pattern that I’m seeing.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means I know you’re not ‘fine’, even though you keep insisting that you are. This isn’t about the work, it’s about you. Gigi, let me help you.”
“I don’t need your help.” Gigi snatched her purse and coat and stormed past him.
“Gigi, stop, please.”
She turned when she reached the door. “I’m fine Matthew, just drop it.”
“You’re not fine.”
“It’s none of your damn business whether I’m fine or not. You’re not my bro—“ Gigi froze. She had not meant to mention William. Did not want to think about William.
Matthew went still at her words, as though waiting to take his cue from her.
“I have to go,” she said after a beat of silence.
She turned and fled from the room, not daring to look back, even when Matthew shouted after her.
Once she was in her car, Gigi swiped at the tears that had fallen, despite her best efforts to stop them, and started the ignition. She had already backed out of her space when she noticed Matthew approaching. He’d followed her? Seriously?
“Gigi!” She heard him shout through her closed window. “Please stop.” But she ignored him, instead turning up her music and speeding toward the exit.
She drove aimlessly, not really sure where she was going, but knowing that she did not want to go home. She somehow ended up near Ghiradelli’s Square. She usually hated this area because it was generally overflowing with tourists, but right now she liked the idea of being around people who didn’t know her or her story. It was easy to disappear in a crowd of tourists and that sounded like exactly what she needed. Since it was February, she found a parking space easily and was soon walking down a large hill toward the water.
She had nearly reached the bottom of the hill, when someone behind her called her name, and she turned towards the sound. It was Matthew, of course, and Gigi didn’t think twice before tearing across the street without even looking. A car honked at her as it slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting her, but she didn’t care; she had to keep moving, to get away.
Matthew called her name again, but this time she didn’t turn. Instead, she moved faster, dodging her way around people who were meandering at a frustratingly leisurely pace. For a moment, she contemplated heading onto the pier, but the pier had an end, and if Matthew followed her there, she’d be trapped, so instead she veered left, towards the beach. There were less people by the water, allowing her to move more quickly. If Matthew was still shouting after her, she couldn’t hear him and, for a moment she thought that he’d given up. She’d reached the end of the beach, where the rocks stopped and grass began, and allowed herself to stop to look out at the water, while she contemplated where to go next.
That was when Matthew caught up with her. She watched him approach, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Gigi considered bolting again, but she’d run out of beach and if Matthew had followed her all the way here from the office, he probably wasn’t going to give up. Still, she wasn’t ready to face him and, before she could talk herself out of it, she pulled off her socks and shoes, threw them and her hoodie into a messy heap, and walked into the ocean fully clothed.
The water was freezing and she had to fight the urge to cry out in shock. She continued to propel herself forward, even as her limbs started to tingle.
“Gigi, what are you doing?” Matthew yelled from the beach.
She spun to face him; she was waist deep in the water now and it took every ounce of will that she had not to let her teeth chatter. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m going swimming.”
“Are you insane? It’s February.”
“I might be.” Gigi shrugged before plunging the rest of her body into the water. Even though she was moving, the cold bit at her skin like hundreds of tiny knives. She ignored the sensation, focusing instead on how nice it was to swim again. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been swimming, let alone the last time she’d swam in the ocean.
Careful not to go too far out, she turned to swim back, wondering if Matthew was going to follow her in or remain on the shore. She saw him sitting on the beach next to her stuff and smiled. At least only one of them was crazy then. She swam a few more short lengths until the drag of her wet clothing and the growing numbness of her limbs started to overwhelm her need to keep moving. As she emerged from the water, and the cool air hit her wet skin, she could not prevent her body from shivering.
She neared Matthew sheepishly. Her swim had cooled her temper and she found she was no longer upset with him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, through chattering teeth, trying to wring out her pants and shirt. “I shouldn’t have left like that. I just needed to get out.”
Matthew didn’t say anything; instead, he got to his feet and picked up her hoodie, holding it open for her but covering his face so he couldn’t see her.
Gigi understood what he was doing and she was grateful for his courtesy. Glancing around to make sure there was no one else nearby, she quickly pulled off her wet shirt and shoved her arms into the hoodie, zipping it up tightly before turning to face Matthew. “Thank you.”
“You’re shaking, you need to get warm.”
“I’m not ready to go home or back to work.”
He nodded and jammed his hands into his pockets. “Ghiridelli’s is just up the road. I know you don’t want to talk, but will you at least let me buy you a hot chocolate so you don’t get hypothermia?”
“Hot chocolate would be nice but—“ Gigi hesitated.
“But?” Matthew asked, his voice resigned.
“But I think I’m ready to talk.”
Matthew looked at her with genuine shock on his face. “Really?”
“You were right. I’m not fine. I’m so far from fine, I don’t even recognize myself anymore.”
“Okay, then let’s go get you that hot chocolate and you can tell me whatever you’d like to. No pressure.”
Gigi tried one more time to wring out her pants, picked up her shirt and shoes and started to walk. “No pressure sounds good.”
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
By my best calculations, it has now been five hundred and eighty-nine days since last I saw your face in person, and not in my mind’s eye. Every day, I close my eyes and I picture you as you were that day: your cheeks flushed from the warm August heat, your hair falling in soft curls to frame your face, your vibrant eyes boring into mine, your lips smooth and soft against mine as you kissed me farewell.
Had I known then that we would be parted for so long, there are so many things that I would have told you. I have learned though, in all these weeks and months of uncertainty, that wishing for things that cannot be, that regrets, are worthless. They are not the things that matter. The things that matter are the things that are; the memories that I have, the moments that we shared. Despite all that has been taken from me: my pride, my dignity, my freedom; my memories and my abiding love for you are the only things that they cannot touch. They are mine and mine alone and I treasure them dearly. There are days where I feel certain that the only reason I am still alive is because of those memories. They have kept me from tipping over the edge of sanity on more than one occasion.
On my worst days, I cling to the fact that I love you today as much as I loved you on the day of our wedding. Do you remember that day, my dear, sweet Lizzie? It is a day that will forever be etched in my mind and heart. I recall how I stood at the front of the aisle with Gigi, Bing, and Fitz beside me, my heart fluttering in anticipation as your sisters and Charlotte walked down the aisle first. They were lovely, though I barely noticed, for it was you that I was most interested in. The moment that you started to walk down that aisle towards me, your arm looped through your father’s, my breath caught in my throat. You have always been beautiful to me, but that day you were a vision beyond compare. I swear you were glowing as your gaze locked upon mine and I experienced one of those rare moments where everyone else seemed to vanish, and by the time you were standing next to me, it was just you and I. For you and our love were the only things that mattered in that moment, and the fact that you were choosing to spend your life with me, well, it meant everything to me.
I know it is cliche to say that you made me the happiest man alive that day, but that is the truth. I was happy, you were happy, we were happy. I cling to that happiness now, to that love. Even in my darkest days, despite everything, I continue to have faith that we will find each other again. I don’t know how or when, but I swear to you, Lizzie, I will find my way back to you. We will be reunited again and I will finally be able to lay eyes upon you once more, to hold you in my arms, to kiss you, and to tell you just how much I love you.
The light is fading and I fear that soon I will not be able to see what I am writing, so I must sign off and hide this letter with the others in the hopes that one day, you will get the chance to read them. I cannot give up that hope, for if I do, all is lost.
April 11th, 2020
Today we celebrated Liam’s first birthday. Mom and Dad came in for it, and so did Lydia. Jane and Bing sadly couldn’t make it because they just flew out for Christmas a few months ago. I really wish they didn’t live on the other side of the country, it’s very inconvenient. Charlotte, Fitz, and Brandon were all here too, and Gigi of course. Liam didn’t really have any idea what was going on, but he was delighted to have everyone around.
Mom, of course, was overjoyed to be here with her grandson, and she baked him probably the most elaborate cake any one year old has ever had in the history of ever. I’m not even exaggerating, William. There were tiers and brightly colored icing decorations and - basically imagine a wedding cake, crossed with Sesame Street crossed with a rainbow and that was this cake. The best part was when Mom left the cake unattended near Liam. He managed to climb out of his high chair, crawl onto the table, and do a face plant right into the bottom layer. Don’t worry, there are roughly 2000 pictures of your son covered in cake and frosting. Everyone thought it was a riot, especially Spencer.
I just realized that you don’t know who Spencer is, because I haven’t had a chance to fill you in on that. Spencer is a three year old girl that Fitz and Brandon adopted recently. It’s taken them months of paper work and home visits and who knows what other hoops, but she finally came to live with them in January. She seems to be adapting well and she absolutely ADORES her fathers. I swear, she has hearts in her eyes whenever she looks at them. She’s also obsessed with Liam. She’s always trying to pick him up, which is a little bit alarming, but our son is hard to catch. He’s also about half her size, but so far, we have managed to avoid any head injuries. I’m hoping this trend will continue. I fear for his head enough already now that he’s walking. He’s still not very steady.
Thankfully right now, he’s fast asleep. I think the sugar from the cake made him crash because he has never gone to bed as easily as he did tonight. Thank goodness because I’m exhausted, and my family is still here, so I’ll be visiting with them once Mom’s finished with the dishes (She insisted on helping and has dragged Lydia and Dad into the task as well. Lydia, as I’m sure you can imagine, is thrilled!).
As good as today has been, I have felt uneasy and slightly off center all day. Liam is growing up so quickly, sometimes I feel like he’s changing on a daily basis. Today, as I watched him toddle around the room, it hit me that he’s not a baby anymore. Even if you came home tomorrow, you’ll never have the chance to hold him as an infant, or to see him take his first steps. or say his first word. I’ve been sure to take lots of pictures and video but it’s not the same as being here. Those things only happen once. Liam will never be a baby again and I’m afraid that, before I know it, he won’t be a toddler anymore either. It breaks my heart for both of you that you’ve missed so much. Hurry home, William, so that together, we can watch our son continue to grow up.
Gigi stood in front of her mother’s roses in the Pemberley Gardens, surveying them with dismay. She had neglected them recently and now, most of them were dead. Just like her mother, and her father, and William.
She’d been coping better with William’s death recently, thanks to Matthew. Ever since their chat at Ghiradelli’s, Gigi had felt a little more in control of her life but there were still many times, like now, when emotion overwhelmed her. She had failed her mother and let the roses die. She had broken her promise about the roses, just as she’d broken her promise to keep William safe.
Breathing became difficult as tears spilled onto her cheeks, and Gigi abruptly lurched forward, frantically grabbing at the roses, pulling off the dead flower tips, crunching them in her fists and letting them fall to the ground. It was cathartic, she decided, attacking the next bush. Soon, she was standing on a graveyard of dry, shrivelled rose petals, but there was still more work to be done. Her motions grew increasingly frenzied, and she failed to notice that she’d cut herself until blood started dripping from her hand. Ignoring it, she kept going, not caring that she was making a mess or that she was probably doing more harm than good to the roses.
“Gigi.” Matthew spoke from behind her but she refused to acknowledge him. Instead, she groped for the dead flowers on another bush, throwing the debris to the ground with more vehemence than was necessary, and managing to scrape the side of her arm on another thorn.
She cursed, reaching out again, but Matthew stopped her by grasping her wrist gently.
“Gigi, stop, you’re hurting yourself.”
“I don’t care,” Gigi tried to pull out of his grasp, and he let her go, twisting so he stood between her and the roses. “What do you think you’re doing?” she spat vehemently, trying to shove him out of the way, but he remained rooted in front of her.
“You’re bleeding,” he said matter-of-factly, looking down at the stains she’d smeared on his shirt.
“It doesn’t matter.” She pushed him again and, when he continued to stand before her unperturbed, her frustration soared and she pounded her hands against his chest, adding punctuation to each of her words. “Let me pass. I need to fix them. I killed them. I have to fix them. I killed him.” Her words dissolved into hiccupping sobs and she crumpled against him.
Matthew stiffened for a moment before awkwardly resting a hand on her back. He remained silent, letting her cry and, when she managed to calm herself, he guided her over to a nearby bench.
He used the sleeve of his already stained shirt to dab gently at the cuts on her arm and her palm, though the bleeding had already slowed. Gigi glanced down at the wounds. Mostly they just stung now.
“Talk to me, Gigi.” He gestured to the massacred rose bushes. “What was that all about?”
For a second, Gigi considered bolting but she didn’t have the energy. Besides, the scattered conversations she’d had with Matthew since that day at Ghiradelli’s had helped her, so maybe talking would help now. If not, it wasn’t like she’d be any worse off. The roses would still be dead. William would still be dead.
She exhaled loudly. “The roses. I promised my mother that I would take care of the roses and now they’re dead.”
“The thing about roses is that they grow back.”
“Not this time. Look at them, they’re a mess. I did that, Matthew. It’s my fault they died just like it’s my fault William—“
“This isn’t really about the roses, is it?”
Gigi shook her head. Moisture pooled in her eyes again. “William is dead because of me.”
She looked at him, expecting him to disagree with her. Instead, he met her gaze and said evenly, “Why do you think that?”
“Guatemala was my idea,” she said in a rush. “I was the one who suggested it, who found the school to partner with. I’m the reason he was there and I’m the reason he’s dead.”
“Do you have some magic power that allows you to control fault lines?”
Gigi spluttered. “No. Of course not.”
“Then it’s not your fault.” Matthew said firmly. “No one could have predicted that this would happen. It’s awful and it’s senseless and I know you miss him and you’re sad, but none of this is in any way your fault.”
“Gigi, it is not your fault, but I understand why you feel that way. I blamed myself too, after my brother’s death.” A faraway look passed over Matthew’s face. “We had a fight the night of his accident. It was about something stupid and unimportant, but we both said some terrible things to each other and he left in a huff.
“After his accident, I was convinced it was my fault. I told myself that if I’d tried harder to work things out, or if I hadn’t let him leave, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Eventually, I came to realize that sometimes terrible, senseless things happen to people we love and there’s nothing we can do about them. I wasn’t the drunk driver of the car that hit him. I didn’t force him to leave. We all make our own choices, and sometimes bad stuff happens, but you’ll go insane if you keep asking yourself ‘what if’ all the time. We can’t go back and change things, we can only move forward. It took me a long time to accept that but, once I did, it was easier for me to get through each day.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get there,” Gigi confessed. “Some days I think I’m over it, that I’m okay. And then other days it’s all just so much. William didn’t deserve this. His wife didn’t deserve to be widowed with a baby. It’s senseless and stupid and it’s not fair.”
“No. It’s not.”
Gigi didn’t know what to say to that so she fell silent instead, eventually leaning against him and resting her head on his shoulder.
After a while, Matthew stood up, walked over to the roses, and started to gently pull off some of the dead petals.
“Don’t bother with that,” she sighed. “They’re a lost cause.” Like me.
Matthew looked at her intently. “They’re really not.”
“I’m serious. Come here and look at this.” Matthew pointed at something she couldn’t see. She didn’t particularly want to give in, but her curiosity got the better of her and she approached hesitantly. “They won’t bite, Gigi.”
“Tell that to my wrist.” Gigi held up her arm.
“Just get over here and look.”
Gigi screwed up her face. God he was annoyingly persistent. “Fine.” She peered over his shoulder, hope seeping through her veins as she registered what she was looking at. There, amid the dry and dying flowers was a tiny, fresh shoot. Her eyes widened. “It’s still alive.”
Matthew grinned. “Yes. It is.” He continued to clear the dead roses. After a moment of hesitation, Gigi joined him, feeling more at peace. If her movements before had been erratic and frenzied, her movements now were the opposite: methodical and calm. She and Matthew worked silently and, as each dead rose petal fluttered to the ground, Gigi felt some of her guilt fade away. In some small way, fixing the roses was honoring not only her mother’s memory but William’s as well,and for the first time in a long time, Gigi felt like maybe, just maybe, she really was going to be okay.
June 11th, 2020
Today marks our fourth anniversary. It’s a little hard to believe that it’s been four years since I walked down the aisle toward you. Four years since we publicly declared our love to each other and you slipped this ring onto my finger. Four years of marriage is something that should be celebrated and yet, as I’m sure you can imagine, I’m far from in a celebratory mood.
You’ve been missing for almost exactly half of our marriage now, William. If I were to let myself think about that too hard, I think I would drown in my emotions. Our forced separation does not make me love you any less, however. It does make it hurt more though. To love someone as completely as I love you, and to have you gone, is a pain worse than anything I ever could have imagined and I would not wish this on even my worst enemy.
I woke up angry this morning, angry with the universe for keeping us apart for so long, angry with God, if there is a God, for putting us in this horrific situation in the first place. I’m furious that we’ve lost so much time together and with our son. If the past two years have taught me anything, it’s that time is fleeting and life is unpredictable. I want our time back, William. I want us to be able to celebrate today together, the way we did two years ago on our second anniversary.
Do you remember that day? I know I do. It’s forever etched in my memory and I’ve relived that day countless times in the last two years. From the moment you woke me up with breakfast in bed, to our drive up the coast and then inland to Napa, to our amazing weekend of wine tasting, to our night in that cozy cottage you rented. Everything about that weekend was romantic and incredible, and you made me feel loved and cherished the entire time. I only hope that I did the same for you because, if it was even possible, I fell even more deeply in love with you that weekend.
My favorite moment from that weekend was the walk we took through the grounds at one of the vineyards. We were both slightly tipsy from champagne and you kept stopping us every few feet just to kiss me. It was one of the sweetest moments of our whole relationship. At least it was until the sprinklers came on unexpectedly and we both got soaked. Although as I recall that just made you kiss me more (in between our laughter) before dragging me back to the cottage to change… among other things.
When you return, perhaps we can convince Gigi to watch Liam for us so we can go back to Napa and recreate that time. We were so happy then William, and I can’t wait for us to be happy and together again.
Always and forever,
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
I was nearly six years old when Gigi was born and I confess, I hated her at first. She was loud, smelly and she looked weird; she couldn’t speak, or play, or do anything interesting; and my mother no longer had time to read with me at night. Dad read with me instead and, initially, I wasn’t especially impressed, but then I discovered Dad’s secret: he could do voices. When he read with me, the characters would always come alive in his chapters in a way that I had never imagined was possible. As the words from the page came to life inside my head, it was like watching a movie or a television program. Everything was so vivid and distinct, and I noticed details I hadn’t before. Reading with dad was something special that we did together, and this continued right up until he died.
The letter wasn’t supposed to be about my father however, it’s about Gigi. As I said previously, I wasn’t especially impressed by her initially, but then, a few days after she and Mom came home from the hospital, Mom called me into the bedroom. She asked me to sit with her and, once I was settled, she put Gigi in my arms, showing me how to support her head.
I remember looking down at her and being struck by how tiny and fragile she was. She opened her little eyes and looked at me, and suddenly, I didn’t hate her anymore. She was precious and special, and from that day on, I was always asking Mom if I could help. Once she could walk, Gigi would follow me around the house all the time. If I’m honest, it was really annoying sometimes. I never had any privacy, especially once she could talk and would pepper me with questions.
What I wouldn’t give to have her here now, pestering me, following me around, talking to me. In actuality I would not want her here, not in this physical place, because I would not wish my current setting upon my greatest enemy, but I would like to be home with her. She is my sister, my family, and I miss her dearly.
I miss you too, Lizzie. So much that it physically hurts when I acknowledge just how unfathomably far away you are.
July 26th, 2020
I haven’t mentioned this to anyone, but ever since you disappeared, whenever I am missing you to the point that my chest tightens and I can’t breathe, I’ll pick up my phone and call your number. It’s stupid, but every time I hear it ring, there’s this tiny moment before the voice mail picks up where I’ll find myself hoping that this time you’ll actually answer. Today, when it clicked over to your voicemail though, it was too much. It’s been almost two years William, and even hearing your voice on your outgoing message wasn’t enough of a connection for me today.
I want to TALK to you William. For real, not in a letter I’ve written in between work or one of Liam’s naps, and not in a voicemail message that’s likely to be deleted before you ever hear it. I want to have a conversation with you, to share my thoughts and worries with you and hear your thoughts in return. I want to lie in bed, cuddled in your arms, my head on your chest as you read the paper and I read my book, the way we always used to on weekends. I want to kiss you and smell you and touch you and hear you. My thoughts and memories aren’t enough, an outgoing message, photographs, and even my old video diary are not enough. They’re merely impressions of you but not the real thing. I need the real thing, William.
So does Liam. He needs your presence in his life. I love him dearly and I’m trying to be the best parent I possibly can be, but even if I were the best mother in the world, I could never replace you. There’s a void in his life where you should be, and he’s still too young to realize it, but one day he will, and when that day comes, it is going to rip my heart to shreds.
We need you, William. Our family is splintered and wounded right now and we need you to be whole again.
I just want you to come home, William. I want you to be here to experience Liam’s milestones. I want you to be here to hug me and tell me I’ll be okay. I don’t think that I’ll ever be okay again. Not until you come back.
I miss you, William. I miss you so much.
On the morning of the second anniversary of William’s disappearance, Gigi stood in her nephew’s room, watching his chest rise and fall in his sleep. It was soothing, the regularity of his gentle breaths and the light sighs he emitted periodically. As she watched over Liam, Gigi thought about the old photographs she’d recently discovered that included some shots of William at roughly the same age. The likeness was uncanny. Gigi expected the thought to hurt but, to her surprise, she felt peaceful about it. It was right that his son should share his features, though she hoped that he had inherited Lizzie’s social graces instead of her brother’s. The thought made her smile. It was amazing really, how this tiny human was the product of two people who were so vastly different.
Liam stirred, his face lighting up when he saw his aunt. “E-e!” he said happily, using the crib rails to pull himself to a standing position. “Up?”
Unable to deny her nephew anything, Gigi lifted him into her arms, only to discover that he was damp. She carried him over to the changing table, talking softly to him as she peeled off his wet pajamas. He kicked his legs and tried to wiggle out of her reach, but she managed to keep hold of him as she quickly diapered and dressed him.
She carried him out of the room, setting him down in the toddler-safe play area she and Lizzie had set up next to the kitchen, so she could make him some breakfast. Liam was settled in his highchair with cereal smeared in his hair and streaked across his cheek when Lizzie emerged from her bedroom a little while later.
Gigi eyed her uncertainly, wondering if Lizzie realized what day it was, but not wanting to say anything in case it would upset her.
Lizzie poured herself a cup of coffee before joining Gigi and Liam at the table.
“Mama!” Liam cried, managing to spit cereal all over.
Lizzie kissed the top of his head. “Good morning, sweet pea.”
“Out.” Liam started to twist in his high chair, leaning his upper body to the side and nearly causing the whole thing to tip. Lizzie quickly lifted him out, settling him on her knee and not seeming to care that he was getting cereal all over her.
A pang of regret passed over Gigi as she watched them. She knew she hadn’t been as attentive to either of them as she should have been in the past year, and though she’d been working hard to straighten herself out and make more of an effort, it was hard sometimes not to beat herself up over the mistakes she’d made.
She’d had many more talks with Matthew since the night in the rose garden, and their chats had helped her start to put things into perspective. She was trying to regain some control in her life. She’d started small and, day by day, it was getting a little bit easier to cope with everything.
There were still moments where she felt frenzied and reckless, but she was dealing with it and not always giving in to her spontaneous whims.
“I was thinking,” Lizzie said, interrupting Gigi’s thoughts, “that today I don’t want to dwell on much I miss William. So rather than us sitting around feeling sad, why don’t we get out of the house today and do something? Maybe something William really likes?”
Purposefully ignoring Lizzie’s use of the present tense, Gigi smiled. “I think that’s a great plan. We’ve both had more than our share of sad days. What about the Japanese Tea Garden? William always loved that place and I think Liam would enjoy it.”
Several hours later, they wandered leisurely through the tea garden. Lizzie had Liam strapped to her back in a special carrier and his eyes were wide as he looked around, occasionally pointing at brightly colored flowers and saying, “Ooooh.” They were crossing a bridge when a man walking in the other direction stopped suddenly, doubling back.
She frowned, unable to place his face. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Fred. We had that amazing night in —“
Gigi’s eyes widened as realization dawned. She should have known that her string of drunken one-night-stands would catch up to her eventually. “I’m sorry, I think you have me mistaken for someone else,” she said quickly, not daring to look at Lizzie, who was watching her closely.
“Uh. Sorry. My mistake,” he said slowly, glancing back at her with a puzzled expression as he walked away.
“Care to tell me what that was all about?” Lizzie asked as soon as he was out of earshot.
Gigi felt her cheeks grow warm. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
Lizzie shifted as Liam tried to lean over the side of the backpack, pointing down at the fish swimming in the pond below. Once she seemed certain her son wasn’t going to plunge headfirst into the water, Lizzie fixed a steely gaze on Gigi. “Doesn’t sound like nothing.”
Sighing, Gigi relented. It wasn’t like there was really any reason not to tell Lizzie the truth. She wasn’t proud of her actions in the past year, but she also knew from talking to Matthew that getting things out into the open would help her to move on. So, she started to talk, right there on the bridge in the Japanese tea garden and, once she started, she found that the words just tumbled out: her guilt, her desire to do something crazy, the drinking, the missed deadlines, the one night stands. She told Lizzie everything, including her February plunge in the ocean.
“You’re insane! The water in the bay is frigid even in the summer, I’m surprised you were even able to walk after that.”
“Oh, I was cold. I’m pretty sure it took me about a week to feel warm after that. Talk about stupid life choices.”
Liam started to make noises of discontentment at staying in one place for so long, so the two women started to walk again. “I’m sorry I didn’t notice what was going on with you, Gigi,” Lizzie said after a while. “I should have.”
“No. It’s not your fault. I made my own choices. Besides, I didn’t want you to notice. I was careful to go out after you went to bed or make it look like I was just staying at work late. I didn’t want to worry you.”
“But you’re okay now?”
“Not entirely,” Gigi admitted honestly, “but I’ve stopped doing stupid things like that. Talking to Matthew has really—“ Gigi froze. She’d deliberately left Matthew’s involvement out of her story so far, though she wasn’t ready to contemplate the reasons why.
“Matthew?” Lizzie stopped, causing a woman behind her to nearly bump into her. “Matthew as in ‘Acting CEO of Pemberley’, Matthew?”
Gigi inwardly flinched at Lizzie’s use of ‘acting CEO’. Matthew’s position had become permanent after a year, but Lizzie still refused to acknowledge the change. “Yeah, he’s actually turned out to be a good person to talk to.”
Liam let out a shriek of impatience and they started walking again. “Right.” Lizzie cast her a side-long-glance, her eyes dancing teasingly, a glimpse of the old Lizzie, the one she’d been before William’s disappearance, shining through. “Matthew, huh?”
“It’s not like that,” Gigi insisted. “We’re just friends.”
Lizzie ignored her. “He’s cute.”
“Oh my god, stop it, Lizzie! He’s been through a similar situation, that’s all.”
Lizzie raised an eyebrow. “If you say so.”
To be continued...
Hugs, ice cream, cookies, and tissues available upon request. Hang in there!
Chapter 4: Part 2c: Over You
Please see the endnote for an important announcement regarding tomorrow's update.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
the yearning to be near you
I do what I have to do
but I have the sense to recognize
that I don't know how
to let you go
- ‘Do What You Have To Do’, Sarah McLachlan
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
I was fortunate as a child to never be seriously injured, but as a result, I fear that I have taken the full use of my limbs for granted. This has become clear to me in the past several months as I have tried to recover from my leg injury. It’s been over four hundred days since it was broken, but still I have great difficulty in putting my full weight on my leg. I suspect the pain that I feel may never quite go away, since the rudimentary splint that I was treated with was not nearly as effective as a normal cast would have been.
However, despite the pain, I am determined to learn to walk on my leg again, even though I’m stuck in this minuscule prison cell. I am exercising it every day now and it’s getting stronger. I will keep working at it until I can use it properly again, and then perhaps, I might finally have a hope of getting out of here.
It’s been hard feeling so useless. For months, I have been able to do nothing but sit here and stay off my leg, in the hopes that it would heal. All the while, I have filled my thoughts with you instead of the pain. I think about you all the time Lizzie, and sometimes I feel as though I can nearly touch your face, even as I long for your embrace from a million miles away.
Gigi collapsed at a table in the Pemberley cafeteria. It was practically deserted, which wasn’t surprising given it was nearly 2:30. She’d been frantically finishing up a project on a deadline all morning, and had sent it off before coming down to get something to eat. She was utterly starving and had just shoved a huge forkful of salad into her mouth when someone slid into the chair across from her.
“You’re having a late lunch too?” Matthew asked, as he unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite.
Gigi nodded, her mouth still too full to answer properly. “Yeah, I just sent off the art for Death of a Teenager (2).”
“That sounds way more fun than the quarterly reports I’ve been going through all morning. If I see one more number, I’m going to scream.”
“Noted.” Gigi took another bite of her salad, wilfully ignoring the small flutter that she felt in her stomach when Matthew smiled in response to her comment.
Not for the first time, she cursed Lizzie for planting ridiculous notions in her head. Ever since their outing at the tea garden nearly two months before, Gigi had started to look at Matthew in a different light, and she didn’t like it. She and Matthew had managed to become good friends over the past six months or so, and that is how she wanted it to stay. Anything else was just residual gratitude for the way he’d helped her out. He had been completely non-judgemental, even in some of her lowest moments and that, combined with Lizzie’s stupid teasing, was the only reason she was even entertaining the idea of something more. She didn’t want anything more. She didn’t need that. Single suited her just fine right now and besides, she was such a basket case that there was no way Matthew would even look at her that way.
Her phone rang and she smiled when she saw Fitz’s number come up. She’d hardly seen him since he and Brandon had adopted Spencer, and they’d arranged for her to join them for dinner that night. She was looking forward to it.
“Gigi.” His voice sounded tired and it lacked his usual enthusiasm. “I’m really sorry to have to do this, but I need to cancel tonight.”
Gigi’s shoulders sagged. “Oh. That’s okay,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t detect the disappointment in her voice. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah. I think so. Spencer had a bit of a scuffle with another kid at preschool today. Apparently he pulled her ponytail and she bit him? It’s unclear, but we have to deal with this.”
“Of course.” Gigi felt guilty for being disappointed. Obviously, his daughter had to come first. “I can take a rain check.”
There was a scuffle in the background and Gigi was pretty sure he hadn’t even heard her. “Shoot. Sorry Gigi, I’ve got to go.”
“Okay, bye,” she said but he’d hung up before she even formed the words.
Tossing her phone roughly on the table, she looked up to see Matthew watching her intently. “Everything okay?”
“It’s fine,” she insisted, going back to her salad but not feeling very hungry anymore.
“Fitz cancelled on you again?” Matthew guessed.
Gigi sighed and nodded. “Yeah. His daughter got into a fight at school or something.”
“Wow. Isn’t she like three?”
“Yeah.” Gigi chuckled. “She’s a pretty feisty kid. Anyway, I totally get why he cancelled, it’s just —“
“It’s not the first time.” Matthew finished for her.
She looked up at him, surprised he’d been paying such close attention. “Yeah.” Gigi sighed. Her emotions were a mass of confusion at the moment and she knew that talking to Matthew would help. “I feel guilty, being even a little disappointed because I know his daughter is important, but I also miss him. He’s one of my best friends, and with my broth— well, I just miss having him around.”
“It’s okay to feel that way, Gigi. Acknowledging your own disappointment doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. You can be understanding and also be upset. Emotions aren’t black and white.”
What he was saying made sense. “That’s true.” Feeling a bit better, Gigi dug into her salad again. “Thanks.”
He flashed a bright smile. “Anytime, Gigi. Anytime.”
The fluttering was back. Gigi swallowed hard and quickly changed the subject. “So, have you started reading that book I recommended last week?”
“Yes.” Matthew launched into an analysis of the main character, and they quickly settled into comfortable conversation for the rest of their meal.
December 24th, 2020
Gigi, Liam, and I have been at Mom and Dad’s for a week now. Jane and Bing are celebrating with Bing’s family this year, so it was just us until Lydia arrived yesterday bringing MAJOR DRAMA.
No seriously. You remember Elliot? Lydia’s been dating him for ages now, since the year after our wedding as I recall. Well anyway, she seldom brings him with her because whenever she does, Mom gets on her whole ‘When are you going to get married?’ train of questioning, and you know how much Lydia hates that. Especially since she decided she would rather just live with a guy she’s happy with rather than mess it up with ‘all that fuss and pressure’.
Anyway, yesterday she shows up WITH Elliot and, as we’re all sitting down to dinner, she says casually, “Oh yeah, so Elliot and I are hitched now.”
I swear to god, Mom turned about twelve shades of purple, and would have dropped a bowl of carrots on her plate if Dad hasn’t taken them from her. Mom made a bunch of noises I don’t think any other human being could ever replicate, and since then, she’s been back and forth between being elated about her youngest daughter finally being married, and crying because none of us were invited.
Lydia, of course, was like, “It’s no big deal, we only made it legal for tax and health reasons, we didn’t need a big fuss to know that we love each other.” Not that it helped Mom, but now she’s decided that since we weren’t at the ceremony, we can at least celebrate with a party, so the day after Christmas, we are apparently having a massive celebration. Lydia is protesting, but Mom’s even called and arranged for Jane and Bing to fly in for it, so there’s really no preventing it. Not that there ever was a chance of that. There’s no stopping my mother once she gets into party planning mode.
Mind you, that hasn’t stalled her from asking your sister about her love life. Gigi tried to brush it off, but I’m pretty sure she was blushing a bit when Mom asked if there were any ‘special young gentlemen’ in her life. My suspicion is that there’s something going on between her and Matthew. She insists there isn’t, but she gets this look in her eyes whenever his name is brought up, so I think she might just be in denial. I’m slightly concerned, since he’s her boss, but then again she’s also heir to the whole company, so he’s not really her superior anyway. Regardless, she seems to be taking things slow so, even if something is going on there, I think it’s probably going to be fine. If he makes her happy, then that’s what counts, right?
Ugh. I should go to bed. Liam has been waking up at erratic hours lately, and he was really excited about all the presents under the tree, so I expect tomorrow is going to be a long and probably early day.
We love you, William. Merry Christmas.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
The day you agreed to become my wife was one of the most magnificent of days. I was nervous in the days leading up to it. I couldn’t sleep because a part of me feared that you would say no, even though I was fairly certain you would agree. My mind is perplexing, even to myself on such occasions.
Regardless of my nerves, I had it all planned out. I had purchased the ring the month before, but I knew that I wanted to wait to propose until your birthday. That day holds such meaning to both of us because of how we began, and so I knew that I wanted it to be then.
I shall never forget the expression of wonder and realization that was on your face as I set aside the honey walnut shrimp and dropped to one knee. I had rehearsed a speech. I’d even practiced it in my office at work that day, but as I knelt before you, my carefully scripted words fled. Honestly, I think that was probably a good thing. As you know, expressing myself adequately is something that I often have difficulty with, yet on that day, it was as if all my awkwardness had given me a reprieve. I was able to tell you how deeply I loved you, and how being with you had given me a sense of home that I hadn’t felt since my father passed away. I described the life we could have together and, before I finished, you were on your knees as well and you were kissing me repeatedly, each one punctuated with a “yes.”
I believe that the sensation I felt then is often described as ‘floating on air’. I felt weightless, elated, indelibly happy. There are days where I can’t quite believe that you chose me, but I am forever grateful that you did. You are my home, Lizzie. You are everything.
Gigi sipped her wine and glanced around the crowded room. She was at the Pemberley Digital New Year’s party that Matthew had insisted on throwing for everyone, though the man in question was nowhere to be seen. Gigi scowled, scanning the room for him again, not daring to dwell too much on why she cared so much. She just wanted to congratulate him on the successful party was all. And she would. If he ever showed up.
A waiter approached with a tray of wine, and she quickly finished off the glass in her hand, so she could set it on the tray and grab another as he passed. She glanced at her watch. It was after eleven. She’d already circulated the room, mingling and making small talk with coworkers from other departments and she was feeling done. She wished Lizzie had come, but her sister-in-law had insisted on staying home with Liam instead of getting a sitter, and Gigi hadn’t wanted to push, so she’d come alone.
She was considering leaving early when Matthew suddenly appeared at her side. “There you are,” he said softly. “I haven’t seen you all night.”
“I could say the same about you,” Gigi shot back, trying not to give heed to the way her pulse quickened as she realized he was wearing a tux. She swallowed. I am unaffected. “I was beginning to think you’d skipped out on your own party.”
Matthew laughed and Gigi decided that the sound was definitely not the reason for the shivers that shot down her spine. “I would never do that. I’ve been circulating. I guess we just kept missing each other.”
“That must be it.” Gigi deliberately looked everywhere but at him. What the hell was wrong with her? It wasn’t like she’d never seen a man in formal wear before. She took another sip of wine, wondering why her hand was quivering.
Matthew put his hand over hers once she’d lowered her glass, gently untangling her fingers from the stem with one hand and, with the other, setting her glass next to his on a table behind him. The continued contact of their hands caused Gigi to freeze and stare down at them until he turned back to her with a bright smile on his face. Her stomach sank. Oh god. She was in trouble. What the hell was happening to her?
“Dance with me?” Matthew asked, tightening his grasp on her hand and tugging her toward the small dance floor where a live band was playing a popular ballad.
“Uh…” Gigi said stupidly as her brain tried to catch up with the situation. Her feet, however, moved of their own accord and a moment later, she found herself on the dance floor with one hand still firmly held in his, while her other rested on his shoulder. She was acutely aware of his other hand resting against her hip, as her entire body was buzzing from the touch.
As they swayed gently to the music, Gigi relaxed, unconsciously gravitating toward him, her head eventually coming to rest against his shoulder.
I must be drunk. She decided, when she realized what she was doing. She felt lightheaded and disoriented and, without meaning to, she looked up and met his gaze.
She’d looked him in the eye countless times before, but this time it was different; more weighted, significant. Gigi tried to decide if it was coming from him or from her, or if it was just the wine talking but suddenly, it didn’t matter. She lowered her gaze to his lips and wondered what it would be like to kiss them. Feeling bold, she raised herself onto her tiptoes and leaned in to find out.
His lips were soft and warm and they tasted of chocolate and red wine. She started to deepen the kiss when his mouth opened in a surprised “o”, but all at once, she registered what she was doing and she pushed against his shoulders, forcing physical distance between them. A handful of people around them were staring and Gigi immediately felt her cheeks redden. Matthew was essentially her boss and kissing him uninvited in a public place had been a stupid thing to do.
Not daring to look at him, she spun around, racing from the room. Blood rushed through her ears. Her heart raced. She ran, not stopping until she’d reached the street, at which point she pulled out her phone to call a taxi. It wasn’t until she was in the cab, safely speeding away from the scene of her crime, that she realized there were tears rolling down her cheeks. She was a fool. A stupid, idiotic fool and she’d just ruined everything. Fantastic.
January 24th, 2021
Earlier today, I took Liam to the park and, while we were playing, I noticed a young couple sitting on a nearby bench. They were talking intently and suddenly they broke into an argument. I didn’t hear what they were saying, but one of them stormed off in a huff after and it reminded me of one of the first fights we ever had.
We’d been dating for less than a year and I was still living in that shared apartment on the other side of town. I was barely making ends meet and, one day I came home to find that you had paid my rent for the next three months. I was furious. As soon as I found out, I got in the car and drove across town to your apartment. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have driven when I was that upset, but miraculously I made it safely. I stormed in, shouting about how you didn’t have the right to do that, that it was my problem and you should have let me deal with it.
You countered logically about how I was on the verge of being evicted and that it was more important that I focus on building my career, rather than worrying about trivial matters when you had the means to make those worries go away.
I freaked out at that, telling you that you had no right to make decisions for me. I’m pretty sure I accused you of having a ‘saving people complex’ and said some other pretty awful things. It was bad. For about three days, I basically stormed around everywhere, fuming about it, until you finally showed up on my doorstep apologizing for overstepping and offering to work out a repayment plan, but that you really couldn’t live with yourself if you allowed the woman that you loved to end up homeless.
It’s funny to me how much my independence mattered back then. I had this crazy idea that if I didn’t assert it at every possible opportunity, I was going to lose myself in our relationship. The funny thing is that it was actually the opposite. I know myself better because of our shared experience and, although my mentality shifted once we moved in together and eventually got married, I never lost my independence and neither did you. We both considered each other, but we never held each other back.
You have been supportive of me every step of the way, and I never realized how rare that is until more recently. When I decided to give up on running my own company to do consulting, you acted as my sounding board, yet never passed judgement. When I decided to apply for the position at Pemberley and I wanted earn the job on my own merits, you supported and encouraged me, while also respecting my wishes.
It took us a long time to get to that point, and dozens of fights like that first one, but I wouldn’t take back any of them. Each of those arguments brought us closer together and helped us to understand each other better, and I will forever be grateful for that. I’m not sure we would have survived the early days of our marriage if we hadn’t worked through so many of those things beforehand.
So, William, thank you. Thank you for helping me to grow and evolve and to become a better person. Thank you for always respecting and supporting me, even when you did not always agree with my choices. Thank you for being such an incredible boyfriend, and husband. You are truly the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Gigi was hiding in her office. She knew it was a juvenile thing to do but she didn’t want to risk running into Matthew in the hallway, and she knew he was working late too. Somehow, she had managed to avoid him since the disastrous New Year’s Eve kiss incident, but she was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be able to keep it up for much longer. Still, she wanted to try to hold the confrontation at bay a little longer. Matthew had tried a few times to talk to her, but she’d pretended to be out of the office and, she wasn’t proud of it, but more than once, she had called in sick to avoid him. She was embarrassed by her inappropriate behavior but she wanted to put off the inevitable dressing down for as long as possible.
She listened as footsteps echoed down the corridor, and after they faded, she waited a few more minutes to be sure that the coast was clear. Grabbing her coat and purse, she stepped into the hallway and headed towards the elevators. As she passed Matthew’s office however, she froze. The lights were on and the door was open. He immediately looked up from his desk, his eyes fixed steadily upon her. She stood rooted to the spot, unable to do anything other than stare at him dumbly.
“Hi,” he said softly, a genuine smile spreading across his face, causing the stupid thrumming of her pulse to speed up.
Gigi willed her brain to start working until she finally managed to form words. “I thought you left.” They were not highly intelligent words, but they were words nonetheless.
“Not yet.” Matthew stood and walked toward her, leaning casually in the doorframe, causing his shirt to stretch and shift in ways that should not be allowed. “It’s good to see you, Gigi.”
The casual tone of his voice caused her to relax a bit. “You too. I’m, uh, sorry I’ve been so busy lately.”
“You mean avoiding me?”
Gigi studied the carpet sheepishly. He always had a way of seeing right through her. Usually she found it nice, but at the moment it was incredibly inconvenient. “That too,” she mumbled.
“It’s okay, you know.” He moved towards her slowly, tipping her chin up until he was looking her in the eye. “You don’t need to be embarrassed.”
Gigi inhaled sharply. She thought she had managed to get over whatever ridiculous crush she had on Matthew by avoiding him, but it hadn’t worked. Her head was spinning and she was certain he could hear her heart pounding in her chest. “I’m sorry,” she stammered, “About New Year’s, I —“
“Gigi, it’s okay.” His finger was still hooked under her chin and he moved in close enough that she could feel his warm breath across her cheek. “You don’t need to apologize.”
Her protest was cut off by the press of his lips against hers and Gigi stopped thinking. Instead, she let her purse fall the the floor so she could embrace him properly. He deepened the kiss, his tongue running delicately over her bottom lip, causing her to shiver. Gigi felt him tangle his fingers through her hair as he tipped her head for better access, and she moaned. Movements became frenzied and they stumbled, the kiss ending suddenly as Gigi nearly fell to the floor.
Matthew caught her. “I’m sorry, I guess we got a little carried away.”
Too breathless to respond, Gigi just smiled. She wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, but she could analyze it later. Right now, all that mattered was that Matthew had kissed her. Maybe her feelings weren’t as off base as she’d originally thought.
Matthew ran a hand through his hair. “That wasn’t what I meant to happen.”
“Oh.” Disappointment flowed through her. So he hadn’t meant to kiss her. Well. She should just go before she made things worse by saying something stupid. She reached for her bag. “I’ll go.”
“No. No.” Matthew wrapped his fingers around her wrist, his thumb placed in such a way that Gigi was certain he could tell how erratic her pulse was. Crap. “That’s not what I meant.” He dropped his hand. “God, I’m making a mess of this.”
Gigi waited, sensing he had more to say.
“I have been thinking about this moment ever since you bolted at the New Year’s party,” Matthew said in a rush. “I had a whole speech rehearsed so I wouldn’t screw it up, but then you were standing here, looking so beautiful and so worried, and all I couldn’t think about was how I never had the chance to kiss you back that night.” The corners of his eyes curled upward. “I would have, you know.”
“Yes, oh.” Matthew grinned. “What I meant to say, before I kissed you, is that I would like very much if you would allow me to take you out for dinner. Just to be perfectly clear, yes, it would be a date.”
Gigi swallowed. Everything was happening so quickly, she couldn’t even begin to process it all. There were probably a million reasons why this was a bad idea, ranging from the fact that he was technically her boss right down to the very real reality that she was a complete wreck, but she didn’t care. She was tired of holding herself back because it was the proper thing to do, or because being happy felt like a betrayal to her brother. It was time for her to start taking healthy risks, and god, this was a risk she wanted to take. “Okay.”
“Yes, Matthew, I would love to go out to dinner with you.”
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
More than once in the duration of our relationship, you have called me out on my pridefulness, and you have been absolutely right to. Pride can be a dangerous thing and, as we both know, it nearly prevented us from ever reaching the point where we could feel for each other the way that we do now.
However, pride is not always a bad thing. At least not when applied to its alternative meaning. That is to say, Lizzie, I am proud of you. I have watched you over the years as you have worked hard to establish yourself in the world of digital media. Even after you received your graduate degree, you thirsted for knowledge. You consulted with multiple companies; learning as you went, walking away from each with more skills, greater expertise and gradually, you became one of the best in the field.
I confess, the day you told me you were going to apply for the Director of Interactive Media position at Pemberley, I was elated. Not only because it meant I’d get to see you more often, but also because I knew that you were an excellent candidate for the position, and that you would be a huge asset to the company. I would have supported you even if you had chosen to apply with a competitor, but I admit I was chuffed that you’d chosen Pemberley.
Were you aware that I purposefully withdrew myself from the selection committee for your position? I did not want you, or anyone else, to think that you would have an advantage due to our relationship. I knew that you were capable of earning the position on your own, so I stepped aside and let you wow them. By all accounts, you were amazing, just as I had known you would be. You impressed even John Grantham, the grumpiest and most stoic man I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. I suspect you are one of the few people to ever impress that man. Regardless, the rumor is that you blew every other candidate out of the water, and the decision was made before you even walked out of your interview.
When I heard, I was bursting with pride for you. Seeing you that night and knowing I could not tell you the good news was a ludicrously difficult challenge. I nearly slipped up more than once, but thankfully, I do not think you noticed, or if you did, you provided me with no indication. Regardless, I highly respect the successful career you have built for yourself, and I am glad you turned down my misguided offer to create a spot for you at Pemberley all those years ago. You earned your success; it wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter and in all my years of watching you work towards it, I have come to greatly appreciate the value in that.
It makes me wonder if I would have made different choices if my father had lived longer and my own position hadn’t just been handed to me. Don’t get me wrong; I worked hard to learn how to be a good CEO, and I’m certainly qualified for it, my education affirms that, but I made so many mistakes, particularly in my first few years, that there are times when I wonder if I deserved it, or if I was really the best person for the job.
One could drive oneself to insanity with all these ponderings so I believe it is time for me to complete this letter.
Whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, I am proud of you, Lizzie.
April 12th, 2021
I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Liam is already two. It seems like just yesterday I was holding him in my arms for the first time. It’s true what they say about two being a challenging age though. I feel like everything these days is a battle: from getting him dressed, to what he eats, to getting him into his car seat in the morning. He has a fierce independent streak. All the books say that’s normal for this age, but there really is no reasoning with him once he makes up his mind about something. Also, I am so sick of the word “no”. It’s his favorite and Gigi and I must hear it at least forty times a day, often screamed.
Mom tells me I was the same at his age, which doesn’t really help. Also, my stubbornness is really not something I wanted him to inherit. I’ve managed to find ways to overcome it, but it wasn’t easy (as you well know having borne the brunt of that stubborn streak on more than one occasion). I really hope that he also got a bit of your practicality and logic to help balance it. Two year olds are most definitely not practical or logical however.
He’s talking so much now and is even stringing words together. This is great, since it means he can sometimes tell us what he wants instead of just squealing or fussing. Although that doesn’t stop him from shrieking anyway - the house is very loud these days. I still tell him stories about you at bedtime every night and he’s starting to ask about you. He has a photograph of you - one from that day we toured San Francisco with Gigi back when I was doing my independent study - and he’s recently taken to carrying it around with him and saying “Da!” over and over again. Gigi apparently showed him one of the episodes of my video diary the other day when I was out. She told me that he clapped with delight when you came on screen and started to talk. It hurts, knowing that he’s yet to meet you in person, or vice versa, but his delight whenever he sees an image of you is sweet and it makes me hope that, whenever you do return to us, he’ll have an idea who you are.
Speaking of your sister, my suspicions about her and Matthew turned out to be true. They’re officially dating now. It’s new, but he’s really supported Gigi over the last couple of years and their friendship has recently grown to more. I don’t actually know (or want to know) all of the details. My concerns regarding him technically being her boss appear unfounded. They seem to have worked it out so they’re professional at work, and since we were basically in the same situation, I can’t really judge. She’s happy and he treats her well so that’s what really matters, right? Gigi’s had a tough time of it recently though, so I hope she takes her time and doesn’t rush things. I know from experience that it takes time to get to know a person well enough to get to the point where you really respect and appreciate each other.
Mom is thrilled. As you know, she basically considers Gigi to be another daughter and after Lydia’s shocking reveal at Christmas, Gigi was the only one who was still single and lacking a ‘prospective husband’. I’m pretty sure that if this thing with Matthew hadn’t happened, my mother would have started trying to set her up with every eligible bachelor within a 10 mile radius! Gigi’s very lucky. She totally dodged a bullet there.
Gigi was happy. Really happy. When her brother had vanished nearly three years earlier, she had thought that she might not ever be able to be happy again. Then Matthew had come into her life and changed everything. It was difficult for her to fathom that she’d once hated and resented Matthew, given how things were going. They’d been officially dating for three and a half months, and there were days where Gigi still felt giddy with the joy of it.
One of her biggest hesitations when they’d started dating had been a fear that it would destroy the friendship they’d built, which she had come to depend and rely on. She hadn’t wanted to lose that. To her surprise, their friendship had only deepened through their dating and mutual affection for each other.
Gigi had found that, once she surrendered herself to her feelings for Matthew, it hadn’t been difficult to let go of her remaining reservations and jump in headfirst. The past three and a half months had been intense and wonderful, and though she still missed her brother deeply, the pain of his loss was becoming easier to live with. Whenever it did become difficult to manage, she would talk it out with Matthew.
Lizzie had noticed the difference and though Gigi hadn’t needed her approval, she found she was relieved that her relationship with Matthew didn’t bother her. In fact, she’d been almost smug about the fact that she’d been right about them.
“Shut up,” Gigi said to her now as they sat on the couch in the living room, watching as Liam played with the trains Mr. Bennet had given him for his second birthday.
“I didn’t say anything,” Lizzie insisted.
“You were thinking it.”
“I think you’re a cute couple is all.”
Gigi glanced down the hall to make sure Matthew wasn’t returning from the bathroom yet. “Right. So all those suggestive looks you’ve been giving me for the past thirty minutes have nothing to do with the fact that Matthew was playing trains with Liam?”
“Like you weren’t already turning to mush over that yourself.”
“So what if I was? He’s a great guy, okay.”
“Yeah. He is.” Lizzie grew quiet, a dark expression passing over her face as she watched her son. “You’re lucky, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s here. He’s free to play trains, or take you places or whatever. He’s just there.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, knowing they were no longer talking about Matthew. “I miss him too.”
Lizzie looked at her mournfully. “I just want him to come home.”
Gigi inhaled. They hadn’t talked about William in a long time and she had begun to hope that Lizzie had given up on her belief that he was coming back. Apparently, Gigi had been wrong. She didn’t want to fight about it though, they’d had more than their share of disagreements on the subject, and she knew that contradicting Lizzie would only frustrate both of them.
Instead, she hugged her sister-in-law. “I know.”
Matthew cleared his throat quietly, alerting them to his return. Lizzie pulled away from their hug and quickly swiped at the tears that had slipped down her face. “Thank you, Gigi,” she said genuinely and Gigi knew she’d done the right thing. Sometimes, it was better to hold your tongue than be right.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
I am bereft. Today I marked the 260th tally on the wall, and the thought that so much time has passed since we were together fills me with great sorrow.
I miss you so very, very much and I wish that I were with you right now. I am frustrated and angry with circumstances as they stand. My greatest desire is to come home to you. To kiss you and hold you in my arms and to tell you how much I love you. Instead, I remain wrongfully imprisoned in the middle of the jungle, with next to no hope of rescue or escape. My leg is still useless. I can barely shuffle my way from one end to the other of this stone cell they keep me locked in, so even were I to have an opportunity to escape, my injury would make it impossible.
I wish there were some way that I could at least let you know that I am alive, for surely after so much time has passed, you must be thinking the worst. Oh Lizzie, if only I could prevent you from experiencing that pain. I can’t even begin to imagine how much of a basket case I would be were our situation be reversed. I can’t even bear to think such things.
Instead, I shall dwell on the good things. I shall think of some of our most precious moments. Like the day, all those years ago, when I showed up unannounced at your parents’ house to respond to your phone call. I was terrified that night. Terrified you would immediately send me away, or that I had misread your most recent videos. A small part of me dared to hope for the sort of outcome that we ended up with, but I could not allow myself to cling to that, for if you had rejected me again, I am not certain I would have ever recovered.
In fact, I am not sure where I obtained the courage to speak up about my feelings. I remember sitting there, barely breathing, as I waited for you to respond. I watched as you hesitated and searched for the words you wanted to say, and somehow I just knew that I needed to say it. I needed to lay my heart out before you and hope against all hope that it would not be in vain. Your reaction to my words pulled at my emotions, and I am fairly certain I went numb for a second when you closed the distance between us and kissed me for the first time.
That first kiss was unlike any I’d ever experienced, Lizzie. It was unbelievable and miraculous, it was gentle and unyielding, it was promising and indescribably unexpected. Our second was quite possibly even better, as we both surrendered to our emotions and said with actions what neither of us was ready to say with words. I knew then, Lizzie, that you loved me as deeply as I loved you, but I also knew that you were not ready to hear or say it. That day was a miracle to me, Lizzie. You are a miracle to me. Thank you for being brave enough to show me how you felt that day. It was our beginning and I could never have asked for a more memorable or special one.
I won’t give up on us, even if, heaven forbid, I am stuck here for another 260 days.
I love you with all of my being.
When Gigi’s Aunt Catherine showed up on Gigi and Lizzie’s doorstep unannounced in the middle of July, Gigi knew they were in for trouble. Although her Aunt and Lizzie had forged a tenuous truce after Lizzie’s marriage to William, they had fundamentally different points of view, particularly in the wake of William’s disappearance, and few of their scattered encounters in the past three years had concluded pleasantly. Gigi loved her Aunt and, in many cases, she agreed with her, but she wished she had given them a little more warning. Lizzie did not do well when she felt ambushed.
This particular visit had started off well enough, with Catherine even going so far as to sit on the floor with Liam to “play trains”. Gigi was fairly certain her aunt had never played anything in her life and she found it difficult to stifle a laugh at the image. In fact, if she had thought she could get away with it, she would have filmed the momentous event.
After a while, Catherine patted Liam on the head in a way which Gigi was fairly certain was supposed to be affectionate but just came off as awkward, and asked her niece to help her up.
“Gigi, would you mind watching the child while Lizzie and I converse?” Catherine asked once she was on her feet again.
Gigi glanced at Lizzie who shrugged. “Uh, sure.”
Catherine pulled a folder out of the bag she had brought with her, and seated herself primly on the one upholstered chair in the room. “Lizzie, there is no easy way to say this so I shall just cut straight to the chase. It is time.”
Lizzie frowned. “Time? Time for what?” Gigi handed Liam the blue train he was asking for, keeping one eye on him and the other on her aunt and sister-in-law.
“Time to accept that William is not coming home.”
Gigi winced. Oh. Lizzie was not going to like this at all. Sure enough, her face immediately turned ashen. “All due respect Catherine, but he is my husband and I think it’s up to me to determine when or if that will happen.”
“Elizabeth, you are the only person who still believes that William is alive,” Catherine reasoned. “It has now been almost three years and we have pandered to your foolish hope for long enough. William is dead. It is a tragedy, and one that affects me very deeply as well, but the fact that he is dead is a foregone conclusion.”
“It’s not.” Lizzie raised her voice, causing Liam to look over at her in alarm. Gigi quickly distracted him, though Lizzie lowered her volume. “There is no evidence that he’s dead. None. So it’s just as likely that he’s alive as it is that he’s dead and I know, in my heart, he’s alive.”
“Elizabeth, please see reason. There was a massive and devastating earthquake that killed thousands of people. Ordinarily, when a person goes missing, they are legally declared dead after five years, but in the case of an event like this one, it can be moved up. You need closure, Elizabeth. We all do.”
Lizzie shook her head vehemently. “No. You just said yourself that it’s usually five years before a person can be declared dead. William will be home before then, I assure you.”
“In the event of a natural disaster, the five year rule is waived.” Catherine looked at Liam, “For your son’s sake, it would be best for William to be declared dead. This will release the bulk of his estate into your care so you will be able to provide Liam with everything he might possibly need.”
“Liam already has everything he needs.”
Catherine sighed. “For goodness sake’s, Lizzie, the boy doesn’t even have a proper middle name. Not to mention the fact that an apartment is no place to raise a child.”
“No.” Lizzie said through gritted teeth. “William is alive and that’s final.” Lizzie stormed off, slamming the door to her bedroom, causing Liam to cry.
“Mama?” he asked worriedly.
“She’s okay,” Gigi assured him, pulling him into a hug. Liam lasted all of three seconds before squirming out of her arms and returning to his trains, apparently content with Gigi’s assurance.
“You know I am right Georgiana,” Catherine said as she stood and gathered her things. “Please try to persuade her? As blood relations, technically we could petition but it really would be best to have Lizzie on board as well.” She placed the file folder on the coffee table.
“I’ll do what I can.” Gigi walked her aunt to the door, watching Liam out of the corner of her eye.
“Thank you. I really do believe this is the best course of action.” Catherine kissed her on both cheeks and left.
Gigi sighed. Her aunt was right, but this was a subject on which Lizzie had been immovable for almost three years. Still, maybe it was time to stop catering to her and make her face the truth.
She waited until Liam was down for his afternoon nap before broaching the subject.
“Lizzie, I think Aunt Catherine had a point. If William is declared dead legally, you will have access to all of his assets and you could move out of here, find a nice house with a yard or something.”
“You want me to give up the home I built with my husband?” Lizzie looked betrayed. “Liam and I are fine here. We don’t need a big house. Besides, this is the home William knows, I could never make a decision as big as moving without his input.”
Gigi had reached the end of her patience. “Well, he’s not here to give his input, is he?”
“I know that.” Lizzie glared at her. “Drop it Gigi, I’m not going to change my mind.”
“No. I have had enough of this crap. He’s your brother, Gigi, how can you just give up on him?”
Tears stung Gigi’s eyes. “You think I don’t remember every damn day that he’s my brother? Lizzie, my mom, my dad, they both died. William was all I had left. I wish that things were different, that I didn’t miss him all the time, that I could believe he is somehow alive, but I can’t. Don’t you see? I’m trying to grieve and to move on, but every time you insist that he’s alive, I feel like I’m thrust right back to that dark place where I can’t cope with everything. Lizzie, I’ve worked hard to get past this. I need to be able to move on, and to maybe have a chance at building my own family one day. That’s all I have left.”
“It’s not. Your brother is alive. You aren’t alone. Besides, you have me and Liam and my family too.”
“I know that.” Gigi spat back irritably. “And I appreciate that, but none of those things will bring William back. No amount of wishing can do that. I should know, I spent nearly a year trying to wish my mother back to life. It. Doesn’t. Work.”
“William was never dead, Gigi.”
“You know what? I can’t do this anymore.” Gigi stormed to her room, grabbed her suitcase and started throwing things into it haphazardly.
“Gigi, what are you doing?” Lizzie had followed her. Great.
“I am done, Lizzie. You can believe whatever the hell you want to, it’s clear that nothing anyone says is ever going to change your mind, but I can’t keep pretending that it doesn’t kill me every time it comes up. I just got myself straightened out and I do not need to keep taking backward steps.”
She brushed past Lizzie, yanking her clothes off hangers and throwing them into her bag.
“Gigi, please don’t do this.”
“I love you, Lizzie, and I love Liam, but I can’t live like this anymore.” Gigi zipped up her suitcase. That was good enough for now, she’d come back for the rest of her things later - once she figured out where the hell she was going.
“Gigi.” Lizzie’s voice cracked. “Please stay.”
Gigi looked at her sister-in-law sadly. “I’m sorry Lizzie.” She pulled out her keyring and removed the keys to the apartment, placing them in Lizzie’s palm. “I’ll call you about coming to retrieve the rest of my stuff.”
“Keep the key, Gigi.” Lizzie thrust it back at her. “This is your home, and you’ll be upset with yourself when you change your mind and you can’t get in.”
“I won’t change my mind.”
“Keep the damn key, Gigi.”
Gigi snatched it from her. “Fine!”
With that, she stormed out of the apartment, not letting her tears fall until she was safely on the other side.
Half an hour later, having nowhere else to go and nowhere else she wanted to go, Gigi knocked on Matthew’s door.
“Gigi?” He took one look at her and pulled her into a hug. “What’s wrong.”
“Lizzie and I had a horrible fight and I stormed out and I had nowhere else to go.” Gigi sniffled. “Would it be okay if I stayed with you for a while? At least until I can find my own apartment or something?”
“Of course you can stay here but, are you sure you won’t go back once you resolve this?”
“No. I’m done. She refuses to see reason and I can’t continue to be around her all the time when she’s not willing to let go of my brother. I need to move on and I can’t do that there.”
Matthew nodded. “I get that. Well, come in, we’ll sort the details out later but you can stay here for as long as you like. Even forever.” The last he said in a whisper that Gigi barely caught. She froze.
Gigi set her suitcase down in the middle of the room and spun to look back at him. “Are you asking me to move in with you? Like permanently?”
Matthew dragged a hand through his hair and walked towards her. “I think I am. Maybe? Is that crazy? I know it hasn’t even been six months ye,t but we’ve known each other for a lot longer than that and I’m totally in love with you and —“
“What did you say?”
“We’ve known each other for longer than that?”
Gigi swatted him. “Not that part, you doofus, the part where you said you loved me.”
“Oh, that.” He placed his hands on her hips and grinned down at her.
“You’re not fooling anyone Matthew, you know exactly what you said.” She slid her hands up his torso, letting them come to rest on his shoulders.
“You’re right, I do.” Matthew dropped his teasing tone and met her gaze. “I love you, Gigi. Completely and absolutely and I would be honored if you’d be willing to move in with me.”
“Yes, I’ll move in with you.” Gigi wrapped her arms around his neck, grateful that something good had come of this awful, awful day. Their lips met and she kissed him urgently, pausing only to say, “For the record, I love you, too,” before dragging his mouth back down to hers.
July 25th, 2021
Everything is a mess. Gigi and I had an enormous fight last weekend and she packed a bag and left, and she still hasn’t come back. I thought for sure she’d come home once she cooled off, but she hasn’t. It was the same old argument too. You know, the one about whether you’re still alive or not.
This is all Catherine’s fault really. We were doing fine until she showed up last Saturday with a file folder filled with legal documents and information about having you legally declared dead. Did she seriously think that I was just going to suddenly change my mind? I’ve been fairly clear of my stance on the matter.
After she left, Gigi tried to convince me to sign the papers. That’s what hurt me most. Catherine not understanding, I get, but Gigi? I thought we had an unspoken agreement that we’d agree to disagree, but apparently now I’m holding her back from moving on or something. She accused me of trying to hurt her. I’m not. Not on purpose. I’m just trying to survive in the only way I know how. Besides, doesn’t she understand that it hurts me when she dismisses my convictions so easily? You’re her brother. I just don’t get how she can give up on you.
Gigi came over yesterday. I thought maybe she’d changed her mind and was coming home but instead, I had to watch as she packed the rest of her things. She told me she’s moving in with Matthew, which is just plain stupid. They haven’t even been together for six months yet, on what planet is making that sort of commitment so quickly a good idea? Not to mention Gigi was clearly upset when she made that decision.
I tried to talk her out of it, to convince her to give it more time before taking this kind of step, but that just made her angrier. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do now. She’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.
I need to fix this but I’m not sure how. I promise you though William, I’ll find a way to make things right between us again. I love your sister, and I’m not about to give up on her. I guess maybe we both just need a little space.
I don’t know. When did life get so messy?
Gigi was stretched out on the couch, rewatching one of her favourite tv shows while she did some work on her laptop. Someone knocked on the door and she paused the tv, wondering who it might be. Matthew had left for a run about ten minutes before, so it wasn’t likely to be him unless he’d forgotten his keys or something.
She swung the door open to reveal Lizzie standing there with Liam in her arms. She felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. The last time she’d seen her, they’d fought again and Gigi really wasn’t feeling up for another argument.
“Hi,” Lizzie said hesitantly, shifting Liam on her hip. “Can we come in?”
Gigi nodded and moved aside for her to pass. “Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee?”
“No, Thank you.” Lizzie set Liam on the floor, pulled a few toys out of the bag she’d brought with her, and handed them to him. Once he started playing, she turned to Gigi. “I’m sorry.”
Sucking in a breath, Gigi watched as Lizzie came to sit beside her on the couch.
“Look, Gigi, I know I’ve hurt you and I’ve held you back from healing, even though I didn’t mean to, and I’m sorry. I really am. I know I’m stubborn and I’m not always the most reasonable person, but I should never have treated you the way I did.” Liam squealed and they both turned to watch him play.
Gigi didn’t know how to respond. She appreciated the apology, but it didn’t change the fact that Lizzie’s denial about her brother was increasingly becoming a problem. It was holding Lizzie back from healing too. “I’m worried about you, Lizzie.” Bracing herself for the inevitable outburst of denial, Gigi continued, “I know you’re having a hard time with this but it’s been almost three years, it’s not healthy to hold on like this.”
Lizzie kept her gaze fixed on her son. “I know,” she whispered.
That hadn’t been the reaction she’d expected at all. Gigi gaped at her sister-in-law. “You do?”
“I know, intellectually, that three years is a long time but, I’m terrified. I’m terrified because if he is alive, what has he gone through that has kept him away for so long? I don’t want that for him. But I also don’t want him to be dead.” Lizzie choked on the last word as a small sob escaped. “I’m not ready to face that yet, Gigi. I’m not ready to sign those papers, even though I know, logically, that it makes sense to. I’m not ready.”
Gigi placed a hand on Lizzie’s back. “It’s okay to take your time, Lizzie.”
“I’m not saying I believe you,” she clarified.
“But I’m not saying I don’t either.” Lizzie sighed.
“That’s okay,” Gigi said honestly. She understood how difficult it was to make sense of death and grief. The fact that Lizzie was even contemplating beginning to let go was a positive step. Healing wasn’t an immediate thing. It was a process, and if Lizzie was finally ready to face that, then Gigi would be there for her, no matter how difficult it would be.
Lizzie wrung her hands. “Will you come home now?”
Gigi pressed her lips together and shook her head, trying to ignore the tightening of her chest at Lizzie’s crestfallen expression. “I’m sorry, Lizzie. I love you and I love Liam and I promise I’ll come visit as often as I can, but I want to stay here, with Matthew.”
“I am.” Gigi exhaled loudly. “I love him, Lizzie.”
Lizzie’s eyes widened. “Already?”
“Love doesn’t come with a schedule, Lizzie.”
“That’s true.” She studied Gigi. “You look happy.”
“I am.” Gigi smiled. “I really am.”
“Then I am happy for you.” Lizzie pulled her into a hug.
August 16th, 2021
I am furious with you. It’s officially been three years since the earthquake. Three years since you vanished into thin air. Why haven’t you come back yet? You have basically abandoned me with our son and a broken heart, and I do not understand how you can be so cruel, keeping us waiting for so long. You have missed seeing your son grow from an infant into this tiny little boy who walks, and talks, and has the most magnificent personality. I am livid that you’ve missed that, that he’s missed that. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to any of us, and I am so angry I could scream right now. I mean it, William, how DARE you leave us this way? I’ve tried so hard not to be mad at you about this but I can’t hold it in any longer.
You had no right to go away for as long as you have. No right to break my heart the way you have. No right to leave me here alone. No right to leave me being the only one advocating for you in a sea of naysayers. How dare you do this to me? How dare you, William?
I still miss you so much and that makes me even angrier. Why can’t I just let you go the way that Gigi has? The way that Fitz has? The way that everyone else has? Why do you still haunt my thoughts and dreams? Why am I so sure that you’re still out there somewhere? It would be so much easier if I could just let you go, but I can’t. I miss you and I love you and I’m furious with you. I wish this nightmare was over.
So you freaking get yourself home, William. We need you here, now more than ever.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
It is the middle of the night but I cannot sleep, for I cannot shake the feeling that you need me, and I have let you down by not being there. I keep closing my eyes and hoping that somehow you will know that I am thinking of you .
If I were with you right now, there are a thousand things I would tell you. I would tell you about how I first decided I wanted to marry you one morning when we were eating breakfast. I know that sounds pathetically unromantic, but it’s the truth. We were in my apartment, and you effortlessly navigated your way through my kitchen, helping yourself to dishes and food as though you belonged. It was in that moment that I realized that you did belong. Our lives had become intricately entwined without us noticing, and I knew that I didn’t want that to end, ever.
As I watched you return to the table, I had a vision of you sitting there next to me; twenty five years from then, fifty years from then, every day for the rest of our lives. I simply could no longer imagine a life without you in it. You brought love, laughter, and joy to my life, in a way that no one else ever had. You respected me and you called me out when I was being unjust or idiotic or judgemental. You made me a better person and I had been fortunate to watch you bloom into someone even more incredible than you’d been when we first started to date. Together we had evolved into better people. I knew that the promise of forever was something that I wanted, and I hoped that you wanted it too. A week later, I bought the ring, and a month after that I proposed. The rest you already know, of course.
Forever seems like such a strange concept to me now when I wonder how long we will be parted for. Time runs strangely when you have little to do to pass the days and nights, when pain and injury renders you an invalid. One day though, things will change. I have to believe that. When they do, I promise you that we will get our forever back.
It was the weekend and Gigi was stretched out on the couch, her head in Matthew’s lap. She sighed contentedly, putting down her book. Living with Matthew was amazing. They had settled into a rhythm with their day-to-day routine and Gigi felt completely at ease around him. It was hard to believe it had only been two months since she’d moved in with him. Somehow, it felt like it had been even longer. Matthew had continued to be a listening ear for her, and she had done the same for him, but they also just had a lot of fun together. They liked many of the same books and tv programs, and Gigi enjoyed their easy banter and the way they teased each other affectionately.
Matthew, it turned out, was also a hopeless romantic and he was always doing sweet, thoughtful things for her without even trying. They had made Friday night their official date night, but had agreed to try and choose nontraditional things to do. They took turns planning the dates and so far had tried bungee jumping, indoor climbing, and had even participated in a top secret, city-wide scavenger hunt. Gigi felt at peace. She saw Lizzie and Liam regularly, usually spending at least half of one of her weekend days with them. She still missed her brother, she knew that some part of her always would in the same way she missed her parents, but the pain was less raw and having positive things to focus on, like Matthew and work and little Liam, helped a lot.
The bottom line was that she loved this new little life she’d built for herself, and she hoped it would never end; that in thirty years, she would still be spending part of her weekend curled up on a sofa with Matthew. The image in her head was so vivid and real that she suddenly sat up.
“I think we should get married.”
“What?” Matthew stared at her in disbelief, as though he was wondering if he’d even heard her right.
“I think we should get married.” She said again. He met her gaze but didn’t say anything so she continued. “I love you, Matthew, and you love me, and I know we haven’t been dating or even living together for very long, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You already know me better than anyone else has ever and I can’t actually imagine life without you, nor do I want to imagine life without you.”
“I love you too, Gigi.” Matthew brushed a spare tuft of hair behind her ear. “But we haven’t even been dating for a year yet.”
“So what? Can you honestly tell me you don’t think you’ll want to be with me still at this time next year?”
“No. Gigi, I’m in this for the long haul, but—“
“But nothing. Why should we wait? Because convention says we should? Screw convention. It’s our life and our choice and I’m tired of waiting to do things I want, just because other people dictate that I should.
“Life is short, Matthew, we both know that better than most people. I’m happy, happier than I’ve ever been and I don’t want to miss out on anything. Who knows how long we really have together? Why should we waste time when we both know that this is what we want eventually anyway?”
“You’re sure about this, aren’t you?”
“More certain than I’ve ever been about anything. I want to live life to the fullest, and to me that means loving you and being with you for as long as possible.”
“I love you, Gigi. Let’s do it. Let’s get married.”
Gigi threw her arms around him, showering him in enthusiastic sloppy kisses before Matthew cupped her face, steadied her, and kissed her properly.
September 19th, 2021
Your sister has completely lost her mind. She and Matthew got engaged yesterday. ENGAGED. They’ve barely been dating for any time at all, how is this possibly going to work? Also, they’re talking about a Christmas wedding, which is nuts. Planning a wedding is hard enough, but doing it in three months? That’s virtually impossible. I like Matthew, I really do, but this is crazy. Not to mention the fact that she should not get married without you being there. Who else will walk her down the aisle William?
I tried telling her this, but she didn’t take it very well. I apologized and told her I would support her, but I strongly cautioned her to at least extend the engagement a little longer. She gave me a spiel about living life to the fullest, but eventually, she agreed to entertain the idea of at least waiting until the new year, but that she really did not see the point in waiting when she knows it’s what she wants. I don’t like it when Gigi and I fight. It’s as bad as when I fight with Lydia or Jane, so to keep the peace, I’ll keep my mouth shut.
I suppose it’s good that Gigi has found someone she wants to spend her life with. Lord knows I understand that, and I knew fairly early on in our relationship that I wanted the whole package with you. I do think that our years of dating helped to strengthen and solidify our relationship before we got married, but then again maybe if we’d gotten married sooner, we would have had Liam sooner and you would have been able to see him grow up. Maybe you wouldn’t even have gone on this trip.
It’s not good dwelling on these things though. I can’t change them, but maybe Gigi’s right. Maybe this is the right choice for her. Regardless, it’s her choice, and one she feels she needs to make, so I will support her.
In other news, Liam is venturing into the realm of potty training. Which, trust me, is just as unglamorous as it sounds. Especially since Liam isn’t that interested in it. I’m trying to encourage him, but it’s such a slow process. He’s on the waitlist for a preschool spot for as soon as he turns three, but he has to be potty trained, so hopefully by his next birthday we will have success.
We love you William, please hurry home.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
For years, your sister Lydia confounded me. When I first met your family, I thought her to be loud, irresponsible, irritating, and severely lacking in judgement. Though she did have many of those traits at that time, since then, I have learned that there is quite a bit more to Lydia than that.
I did not recognize Lydia’s intelligence until she came to my aide unexpectedly one day. It was when we spent that summer at Netherfield the year before we were married. You had gone out with Charlotte and I had sequestered myself in the corner of one of the local coffee shops with a particularly frustrating script. It was the first segment of a mini-series we were due to begin production on that fall, but it was a complete and utter mess.
Lydia found me there, frowning down at that excuse for words and asked me what was wrong. Normally, I would not have shared, but I was so beyond annoyed that I showed it to her. To my amazement, she read it through and, within ten minutes, had stolen my pen to circle the most problematic passages and to annotate suggestions for replacement. Lizzie, her suggestions were exactly what that script needed and, if she hadn’t already had employment, I think I would have offered her a job at Pemberley right then and there.
Instead, I thanked her and offered to buy her a beverage, but she dragged me next door to buy ice cream instead. We conversed as we consumed it and had one of our first exchanges that consisted of more than small talk. She told me about her job and the writing project she was secretly working on. She made me promise not to tell you because she was embarrassed to be engaging in something as dorky as writing (her words, of course), but she had discovered that she enjoyed telling stories. I encouraged her to continue if it was something that she felt passionate about, and she asked me if I would be willing to read one of her stories and tell her if it was any good.
I was reluctant to agree at first. What if it was terrible and I had to disappoint her? I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. Yet at the same time, I knew that there was a time when Lydia greatly disapproved of me so, for her to respect and trust me with something like this was a big deal, and I knew I couldn’t let her down.
The story she sent me to read was quite good, and she seemed to appreciate the feedback I provided her with. After that, she continued to send me her stories to read; in fact, just before I left for this trip, she had sent me a draft of her novel and she said she was planning to tell everyone else in the family about her writing soon. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to read beyond the first chapter, but it was a very good first chapter.
I sincerely hope that she has found the courage to tell you her secret now, Lizzie, because you would be so proud of her. She has worked hard to learn how to craft and build stories, and I have seen great growth in the few years I’ve been reading her works. I do hope you can forgive me for keeping this from you, Lydia made me swear not to tell you and, truthfully, it was not my secret to tell.
You have a good family, Lizzie. I only wish that I had recognized that sooner.
“We should elope,” Gigi announced to Matthew, about a month after their engagement while they were making dinner one night.
Matthew dropped the spoon he’d been holding. “What?”
“You and me.” Gigi pointed between them and went back to straining the pasta. “Rather than planning some big, expensive affair, let’s just drive to Nevada and get married there. Quick and easy. We could even go next weekend.”
Matthew turned off the stove, moved the spaghetti sauce he’d been heating off the burner, took Gigi’s arm, and guided her over to the table to sit down. He moved his chair so he was sitting directly in front of her, and looked her directly in the eye.
“Gigi, what’s this about? Why the sudden rush to get married?”
“I just don’t see the point in waiting. We love each other, we want to be together forever, why do we need all that fancy stuff? I want to be happy now.”
Matthew’s silence made her nervous. Had he changed his mind? Did he not want to marry her anymore?
“I know we were talking about December, but people will be busy with the holidays then anyway,” Gigi rambled, trying to fill the void left by his lack of response. “And the whole point is for us to be together. I don’t need the dress and the flowers and all that crap. I just need—.”
“Gigi,” Matthew said softly, taking her hands. “Slow down.”
“No!” She wrenched her hands away. “I don’t want to slow down. That’s the whole point. I’m tired of waiting for good things to happen, I’m tired of plans and logic and lectures from Lizzie. I want to act. I want to live.”
“You are living, Gigi, you’re one of the most lively people I know. But eloping is a little extreme, don’t you think?”
“Don’t you want to marry me?”
“Of course I do.” Matthew took her hands again. “Gigi, I love you.”
“Then why won’t you elope with me?”
“Because I want to marry you in front of our family and friends. Don’t you want Lizzie to be there? And Liam?”
Gigi nodded. She did. It wasn’t the people who would be there that were the problem. It was the people, the person, who wouldn’t. She turned away so Matthew wouldn’t see the tears that were threatening to fall. She swallowed hard, trying to regain control of her emotions.
“Gigi,” Matthew said after a minute. “Talk to me, tell me what’s really bothering you?”
“William,” she whispered, meeting Matthew’s gaze again. “No matter what we do, he won’t be there. He won’t be able to walk me down the aisle. He won’t get to meet you. To see me happy. So I thought that, maybe if we eloped—”
“—it wouldn’t hurt as much?” She nodded. “Oh, G. Come here.” Matthew pulled her into a hug and she clung to him, letting herself cry. He smoothed her hair, kissing the top of her head periodically. It was comforting and when she pulled away a few minutes later, she felt better.
“I’m sorry.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m at peace with the fact that William is gone, I really am.”
“It doesn’t make it any less difficult.” Matthew scrubbed his hands over his face. “I’m sad that my brother won’t be there either. I always thought he’d be standing next to me on my wedding day, and he would have loved you. But that doesn’t mean that either of our brothers wouldn’t want us to celebrate our love and joy with the rest of our families. And it doesn’t mean they won’t still be there in spirit.”
Gigi sat up straighter. “You’re right.”
A smile emerged on Matthew’s face. “I do think that December is still too soon though. It’s less that two months away and, even if we keep it simple, we’re both working, and there are lots of details to arrange.”
“You’re right, I know you are, December was a stupid idea. When were you thinking?”
Gigi wrinkled her nose.
“What’s wrong with July?”
“Nothing. It’s a perfectly respectable month.”
“But life and time are precious and I love you so much, Matthew, and I want to spend as much time with you as I possibly can. And while I agree that December is too soon, July is ages away. How about something in between? Like March?”
“I think we can make that work.”
“I like it.” Gigi leaned forward, capturing his lips in an intense kiss that set her heart rate on overdrive. Her stomach suddenly growled loudly and they both laughed.
“I think that’s our cue to eat dinner,” Matthew joked.
“Yeah,” Gigi agreed. “Now that it’s cold. Sorry.”
Matthew led the way into the kitchen. “Don’t be sorry, that’s what microwaves are for.” He poured the pasta into a bowl and set it to reheat before turning back to her, a glint in his eyes. “Besides, now I don’t feel so bad telling you that you’ll get to meet my parents for the first time when we host them for Thanksgiving next month.”
“Don’t look so worried. They’ll love you.”
“You’ve never seen me try to cook a turkey before. Trust me, it’ll probably end in a trip to the ER for food poisoning.”
“Well, luckily for all of us, I am a turkey expert.”
“Is that so?” He nodded so earnestly that Gigi burst out laughing. “Dork.”
“Hey now, I happen to be a very loveable dork.”
Gigi reached around him to take the pasta out of the microwave, before planting a chaste kiss on his nose. “That you are, Matthew, that you are. Now let’s eat, I’m starving.”
January 2nd, 2022
Another New Year has come and gone, and I can’t help but feel like maybe everyone is right. I want to keep believing that you’re coming home, but it’s been three and a half years and I don’t know how much longer I can keep convincing myself that you are still alive. It’s not fair to me, or to Gigi, but most of all it’s not fair to Liam. He’s smart and he’s talking more and more everyday. When he asks about you, I continue to show him pictures and tell him stories, but I’m starting to get the impression that’s all you are to him, a story. I want so badly for him to know you for real but, the more time that passes, the more impossible that seems.
Your Aunt Catherine is still pushing to have you legally declared dead and I’m beginning to feel like maybe she, Gigi, and Fitz are right. Three and a half years without a single word or clue. Three and half years during which the country you were last seen in has experienced serious damage to infrastructure, and an extreme increase in civil unrest. Three and a half years without anything more than my gut feeling. I want to trust that feeling, more than anything, but maybe it’s time to admit that it could be faulty. I love you William, and I do not want to give up on you, but I am not certain I can keep pretending you’re okay when it’s obvious that you are not.
The thought of you being dead, of you never coming back, is horrifying to me, William, but the more time that passes, the more I am starting to realize that maybe it’s time to at least consider letting you go. In fact, as awful as it sounds, there’s a small part of me that hopes you are dead, because if you really are alive, I cannot fathom the horrors you would have gone through that have kept you away for three and a half years. I love you, William, and no matter how badly I want you back here with me, I can’t stand the idea of you suffering like that.
I don’t know what I will decide to do, but what I do know is that I love you, absolutely and completely, and no matter what happens, that will never change.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
I have managed, finally, to procure a pen and a rather rustic notebook (more a collection of mismatched papers clipped together) so that I can write to you. By my rough estimate, it has been nearly one hundred days since the earthquake hit and my life, our lives, were turned upside down.
You must be worried sick about me, Lizzie, and for that I am so very, very sorry. I wish that there were a simple explanation for what has happened to me, but to be honest, there is much that I do not understand or remember myself. I shall do my best to lay out what I know, because I know that the not knowing must be far worse.
I woke up early the day that it happened and could not fall back to sleep, so I decided to go find an early breakfast before returning to get ready to visit the school. I was not expecting to be gone for very long, so I dressed quickly, shoved some quetzal (3) into my pocket and headed out. I was strolling down the street a few blocks from the hotel, in search of an appropriate breakfast place, when I was suddenly thrown off balance. It took me several seconds to realize that the ground was shaking and the last thing I remember after that was looking up just as a pile of plaster and brick came raining down upon me.
The next thing I remember was incredible pain in my right leg and surroundings that were dimly lit. I vaguely recall hearing several voices speaking rapid Spanish, but my memories of that time are fragmented. I think I may have been coming in and out of consciousness, though I am not certain. I do not know how much time passed. It could have been hours or days (which is why my estimation of how much time has passed now may be inaccurate), but when I was finally fully cognisant of my surroundings, I was not in a hospital as I had assumed, but instead in a small family home.
There were three people there: a man, a woman I assume was his wife, and a teenaged boy. They had evidently nursed me back to health and tended to my injuries, although as none of them spoke English and I could not comprehend their Spanish, it was hard to know for sure. My leg had been splinted with long sticks and a rigid board by someone who clearly had some type of medical knowledge.
I could not walk on my leg at all, so going anywhere was out of the question, but this family made sure I was comfortable and fed. I tried to ask about a phone at one point, but my request was met with blank stares. There was no phone in the house itself, in fact there was barely electricity. This was obviously a very poor family who had been very generous in helping a stranger.
Aftershocks happened, I remember at least a few of those in that time, though I do not think they were nearly as strong as the first. The house we were in certainly seemed to be okay. I had no concept of what was going on outside though. I wondered about the school, the hotel, and the other places that had become familiar to me during my short stay, but there was no way for me to find out anything. More than that though, I worried about you. I wanted very much to get in touch with you, and had even decided that I would find a way to drag myself out of there to find a phone.
It was the morning after I’d made that decision that everything went horribly wrong. I was awakened by a loud bang, and then voices. I sat up to see four large men with guns pushing their way into the already crowded space. I could tell that the family were frightened, and though I couldn’t understand them, I could understand their visitors. I made out something about traitors and rebels before we heard a gunshot and scream from outside. The sound seemed to spur on our visitors, and they wasted no time in pointing their guns at us and ordering us to go outside.
One of the men forced me out of bed and, after taking a few steps on my injured leg, I collapsed. The pain was blinding, and I’m fairly certain I blacked out because the next thing I remember, we were all in the back of a covered vehicle, guns still pointed at us.
We drove for what seemed like hours on incredibly windy and bumpy roads. Every bump caused my leg to throb and I feared I had rebroken what had been mending. After a time, we stopped and our captors put blindfolds on us and ordered us out. Two people helped me get out and since I couldn’t walk, I was half carried, half dragged to our destination. When the blindfold was removed, I was here, in this cell, where I have remained ever since.
I say cell but really it is nothing more than a small room with a dirt floor and stone walls. There’s a very small window that’s covered in bars and barbed wire that lets light into the space, and the only exit is the heavy wooden door that only ever opens when they bring us our meals each day.
My cellmate is the man from the family who had rescued me. Though I have remained inside this box for the full duration of every day and night since we arrived, he is collected at gunpoint each morning and returned each night. I do not know where they take him or what they do to him, but I suspect they are forcing him to do some kind of labor for them, because he comes back sweatier and dirtier every time. On one of our first days here, he managed to procure materials to re-splint my leg, and he was the one who brought me the pen and paper that I’m using to write with now.
Since paper is scarce, I will not be able to write to you every day Lizzie, but I shall try to write you on as many days as I can, even though I know that the chances of actually getting these to you is highly unlikely. I love you, and I am thinking of you every second of every day. Regardless of the horrors that have befallen me, it is you that remains my utmost concern.
Missing you most resolutely.
February 28th, 2022
It has taken me a long time to come to terms with your extended absence and what it means. Despite my best efforts, I can’t continue to live in denial any longer. It’s clear at this point that you are not coming home, and that you are most likely dead. It has not been easy for me to arrive at this conclusion, or to accept it. In fact, if I’m being brutally honest, I haven’t accepted it, not yet, but I’ve vowed to myself that I will try.
For over three and a half years, I have put my life on pause. I have waited for you to come home to me and you haven’t. I have poured everything I have into raising our son and giving him as happy a life as I possibly can, even while I’ve struggled with my own sorrow and grief. I love you, William, I’m certain that I will never stop loving you, but I think the time has come for me to say goodbye.
I’m signing the papers to have you legally declared dead. I called Catherine earlier today and she’s set up an appointment for the week before Gigi’s wedding. We’re all going to go together, so I won’t be alone.
This was not an easy decision for me to make, nor is it one that I have made lightly. I’m still not 100% convinced that it’s the right thing to do. A part of me is still clinging to the hope that you are somehow still alive, but I know that I can’t live my entire life under a shadow of what might be. I owe it to myself, and to our son, to achieve more than that. I owe it to you too. I know deep down that you would want me to be happy. Right now, it doesn’t feel like that will ever be possible, but if Gigi has managed it, then I suppose in time I may too?
I love you, William, I love you so, so very much, but it’s time for me to try to let you go. It’s time for me to say goodbye and that means this will be my final letter to you. It needs to be if I am ever going to stop clinging to the past and move forward.
I will always cherish my memories of the years we had together and I will continue to share those memories with our son. He will grow up knowing that he was loved and that his father was one of the most incredible people I have ever had the privilege to meet.
I love you William, with all my heart and soul, and I don’t know that I will ever get over you. You are the love of my life and I will always love you.
It was early March and the San Francisco fog had cleared, resulting in an unseasonably warm spring afternoon. Gigi met Lizzie and Liam in Golden Gate Park after work, and following a nice long walk, they took Liam to one of the many playgrounds. As they pushed his swing back and forth between them, they chatted idly about Gigi’s upcoming wedding.
“I can’t believe it’s in two weeks,” Lizzie told her. “How are your stress levels?”
“Not too bad. Letting your mom take care of most of the details was one of the best decisions.”
Lizzie laughed. “Mom is nothing if not militant when it comes to weddings. She lives for them. In another life, I swear she could have been a wedding planner.”
“Seriously. She’s been such a godsend, especially because of the compressed time frame.”
“You only have yourself to blame for that,” Lizzie teased lightly. “I did try to warn you.”
“I know, I know.” Gigi fell silent, wondering if she should tell Lizzie about the thought she’d had the other night. Lizzie had been more receptive lately, even going so far as to tell Aunt Catherine she would sign the papers to have William declared legally dead, so she decided to plunge forward anyway. “I know your dad offered, and I really appreciate it, but the thought of anyone other than William walking me down the aisle hurts, so I’ve decided that I should do it myself.”
“Anything else wouldn’t feel right. Besides, it’s not like I really need anyone to ‘give me away’ in the traditional sense. I don’t even agree with that premise really. I’m choosing to marry Matthew. ME. The only people involved in that decision are him and me.”
“That’s very true.”
Liam had stopped moving in the swing and he was now waving his little legs and saying, “More! More! Push me Mama!”
Lizzie gave him another push and Gigi caught him on the other side, sending him back. Liam squealed with delight.
“I can’t believe he’s nearly three already,” Gigi mused, smiling fondly at her nephew. “He’s growing up so fast.”
“I know. Sometimes I wish I could stop the clock so he’ll stay little forever.”
“Do you really want to deal with potty training and toddler temper tantrums forever though?”
Lizzie laughed. “You make a good — Oh!” Lizzie stopped suddenly to dig her cell phone out of her pocket. She frowned down at it, clearly not recognizing the number. She gestured for Gigi to keep pushing Liam while she answered.
“Yes, that’s me.”
Gigi gave Liam a large push and looked back at Lizzie, who had suddenly turned white. Alarmed, she checked to make sure that Liam was secure and still moving, before stepping over to where Lizzie was. Lizzie’s hands were shaking and Gigi was pretty sure her knees were about to give out. She guided Lizzie to a nearby bench, her concern growing when Lizzie didn’t even protest. Lizzie continued to listen intently to whoever was on the other end of the line, and, unable to do anything else, Gigi returned to her nephew. She took him out of the swing and strapped him back into his stroller, before giving him one of the snacks they’d brought with them. She set Liam’s stroller next to the bench and sat down in time to hear Lizzie thank the person on the phone and hang up.
Lizzie was frozen in place, her eyes fixated on her phone.
“Lizzie, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“They found William. He’s alive.”
End Part Two
FYI - I have had an unexpected family commitment come up today and as such, I will not be able to complete the necessary edits to 3a in time to post it tomorrow as planned. So unfortunately, THERE WILL BE NO UPDATE TOMORROW. :( I'm really, really sorry about this unanticipated delay. Thankfully this is the best place for a break and I hope that ending will tide you all over for the extra day. 3a will go up on Friday, with 3b following on Saturday. Again, I'm really sorry about this.
(2) Death of Teenager - It’s not as morbid as it sounds, I swear. I imagine this series about an overly dramatic teenager who claims that everything is the worst thing ever and will cause her death, but it’s complete hyperbole. “I have so much homework, I’m going to die.” “My boyfriend dumped me, my life is over.” etc. Then, as she starts to grow and evolve, the title starts to represent the DEATH of that self as she grows into a better person and moves toward adulthood.
(3) quetzal - currency used in Guatemala
Chapter 5: Part 3a: After the Storm
Thank you all so much for bearing with me and the unexpected delay. I am truly sorry I had to keep you waiting an extra day for this chapter but you're getting a much better version of it out of the deal - including an extra 1000 words that weren't in this yesterday.
I haven't had a chance to answer any of the comments on Part 2c yet but I have read them all and I greatly appreciate them. Thank you. I'll try to get to them tomorrow if I can.
There are several people who helped make this fic a reality, namely erinwert, missclaudiaar, mamaleh6994 and ahundredteas. Please see the endnotes on tomorrow's chapter for more extensive details and thank you's but basically all four of them are superstars and you should all shower them with love because they deserve it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After the Storm
Never mind what I knew, nothing seems to matter now
Ooh, who I was without you, I can do without
No one knows where it ends, how it may come tumbling down
But I'm here with you now
I'm with you now
- ‘The Light’, Sara Bareilles
“We are now beginning our final approach into Guatemala City…”
Lizzie swallowed. Tuning out the pilot’s announcement and leaning back in her seat instead, she took a deep breath as she wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans. They would be landing soon. A US Embassy official would meet her at the airport and take her to see William.
Her pulse quickened at the thought. William was alive. She still couldn’t quite believe it. Ever since receiving the phone call in the park, she’d felt like she was living in a dream. She had spent so many months and years hoping that William was alive; to have her wish come true so suddenly and unexpectedly just after she’d begun to accept the fact that he was gone for good, had thrown her completely off balance. She’d barely been coherent after the initial phone call as a barrage of emotions hit her. The most pressing being that she wouldn’t believe it until she saw him with her own eyes.
“I need to go down there. I need to see him,” she told Gigi.
“He’s alive? He’s really alive?” Gigi’s jaw dropped open in shock. “You’re sure?”
“That’s what the man on the phone said.”
“But how? It’s been three and a half years.”
“I don’t know. He wouldn’t give me details over the phone.”
“I can’t believe it.” Gigi whispered, tears trailing down her cheeks. It didn’t seem real to her. “My brother was alive all this time. Lizzie, I’m so sorry I doubted you.”
“It doesn’t matter now, Gigi. It’s not important. What’s important is that he’s coming home.“ Lizzie looked at her sister-in-law. “They said they could have someone bring him home but I don’t trust anyone else. I need to go down there myself to get him. Will you look after Liam for a few days?”
“You’re going to go alone? Are you sure that’s a good idea? I could come with you.”
“There’s a flight tonight that gets into Guatemala City early tomorrow morning. They said they could have someone meet me and escort me to the Embassy, so I’ll be fine.” Lizzie paused. “Gigi, I know William is your brother, and that you’re anxious to see him too, but I think this is something I need to do on my own. Besides, Liam needs to be with someone he’s comfortable with. This is already going to be a big change for him. I still have no idea what state Will—” Lizzie broke off, unable to complete the thought.
Gigi understood. The fact was that William must have gone through hell to have been away for three and a half years, there was no telling how he really was. It was probably going to be overwhelming for him to see one of them again, let alone both. It made sense for Lizzie to go alone. “Of course I’ll watch Liam. Matthew and I can stay at your place until you get back.”
“Thank you.” Lizzie smiled at Gigi gratefully.
Gigi hugged her. “Just bring my brother home safely, okay?”
“We should go.” Gigi stood up and started to push Liam’s stroller toward where they’d parked the car. “You have a flight to book and a suitcase to pack.”
When a flight attendant announced that it was time to fasten seat belts and stow trays in the upright and locked position, Lizzie’s stomach suddenly lurched. She would be seeing William within the next hour and, despite having spent the entire eight hour flight perseverating on their upcoming reunion rather than sleeping, she wasn’t sure she was ready. On the one hand, her entire body ached for him. Three and a half years was a long time to have missed him, and she needed him in ways she had never realized. On the other hand, she was terrified of what state she’d find him in. She still had no idea what he’d been through while they’d been separated, and her mind had spent most of the flight contemplating scenario after scenario - each one more horrific than the one that came before it. Combined with all of that was a knot of fear in the pit of her stomach that it wasn’t real.
To make matters worse, she felt incredibly guilty. She had almost given up on him. She was going to sign those papers to have him declared dead, when in fact, she had been right all along to put her faith in him. At the last minute, she had let him down; had given up on him, had been ready to try to move on. What if he hated her when he found out? This line of thinking led to other questions, like what if he no longer loved her? And how would he react to Liam? How would Liam react to him? Was he okay? What had he gone through? The questions went on and on inside her head and Lizzie finally had to shake herself to make them stop.
She was going to make herself sick at this rate, and she didn’t want that. She wanted to be in top form when she saw William again.
There was a rough jolt as the plane landed on the runway. Lizzie inhaled sharply. Ready or not, her wait to see William again would soon be over.
The man who met her at the airport was called John Fisher, and he had been waiting for her when she got off the plane, a handwritten sign, with “Elizabeth Darcy” on it, in his hands. He wasted no time in introducing himself, before ushering her to a waiting vehicle.
“I know you are probably wondering about your husband,” John told her as he started the car and eased into early morning traffic. “I’m not going to sugar coat it. He’s in rough shape.”
Lizzie sucked in a breath.
John glanced at her. “Are you alright?”
No, she wasn’t. She was worried and anxious, but William was alive. That was what was important. She nodded slowly.
John continued. “He wandered into the embassy yesterday afternoon, dehydrated, exhausted, and without shoes. He was limping badly and, after gasping your name, he collapsed.”
“Is he okay?” Lizzie hated how weak her voice sounded.
“He will be. We had a doctor come look him over before we called you yesterday. Your husband was treated for the dehydration and, aside from some bruises and scrapes, he’s physically okay. His limp is the result of an old injury that hasn’t healed well. You’ll probably want to have a specialist look at it when you return to the states.”
It was a lot to take in. Lizzie blinked back tears. She needed to stay strong for William, she could fall apart later. “Where is he now then? The hospital?”
“No. The doctor treated him at the embassy and ordered rest. We got him settled into a nearby hotel so he could rest. He should be up and waiting for you at the Embassy by the time we get there.”
“Where has he been all this time? Do you know?”
“Your husband was distressed when we asked, so we do not know much. We’ve been able to work out that he was imprisoned somewhere in the jungle, and he recently managed to flee on foot.”
“Imprisoned?” Bile rose in her throat.
“It’s not uncommon here. Especially since the earthquake, there’s been a lot of political unrest and rebellion. Several groups have been known to take hostages for any number of reasons.”
“But why William?”
“Wrong place at the wrong time, most likely. The important thing is that your husband is now free and safe.”
Lizzie nodded. He was right. William was safe now, and soon, she’d have him home. The rest of it didn’t matter. Her heart ached for William, regardless. He had been through so much and she’d been thousands of miles away, unable to help him. She should have fought harder to come down and look for him. Maybe if she had, she could have found him, could have prevented all this.
The car stopped and Lizzie looked up to see that they were parked.
“We’re here,” John said gently.
She swallowed. This was it.
John led her to a room at the back of the Embassy. “He’s in there,” he told her, an encouraging smile on his face. “I’ll give you some privacy.”
Her hand shook as she opened the door, uncertain of what she would find on the other side.
A man sat at a table in the center of the small space, his head bent as he wrote something. His cheeks were gaunt and his clothing hung limply on his body. His hair fell in long tangled tendrils that framed a face that was covered by a thick beard. Could this man really be her husband? What if the embassy had been wrong? A pit formed in the bottom of her stomach. This man was unrecognizable to her. What if he wasn’t William?
He looked up, his eyes as blue as ever. Relief flooded through her. It was him. It was really him.
“William.” She rushed over to him, unable to wait any longer.
“Lizzie?” William’s voice was awed.
“William,” she said again. She kissed his forehead, the corners of his eyes, the tip of his nose. She ran her hands through his hair. “It’s you. It’s really you.”
“You’re real.” He raised a trembling hand to her face. “Oh god, you’re real.”
Tears spilled from Lizzie’s eyes. “Yes, William, I’m real.”
He stood up, engulfing her. His shoulders shook and he clung to her tightly, his tears dampening her hair. Her face wound up pressed against his neck and she breathed deeply, his scent achingly familiar. The relief of being able to see him and touch him again was almost overwhelming and, had he not had his arms wrapped tightly around her, she probably would have fallen. For three and a half years, she had yearned for this moment, had feared she’d never again be able to fill her senses with awareness of him. She hugged him back, holding on to him for dear life. She was never letting go.
William inhaled deeply, easing back slightly so he could see her face. He studied her, imprinting every detail on his memory. She had never looked so beautiful. “You’re real,” he said again, still not quite believing that this wasn’t some trick his mind was playing on him. He kissed her lips and they felt warm and familiar. “Lizzie.” He kissed her again. “Oh god, Lizzie.” Another kiss. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you, too.” She kissed him back, letting her lips linger a little longer this time. She wanted to melt into him, to lose herself in the rush of love and joy and relief that filled her up.
He responded, drawing her bottom lip into his mouth, his arms pressing her more tightly against him. Never had he needed a kiss more. The pain and terror that haunted even his waking moments faded a little more with each kiss, with every caress. He hadn’t felt this alive, this whole, in a long time and he ached with desire for more, even as the throbbing in his leg reminded him that he needed to sit soon.
Lizzie rested her forehead on his, her hands framing his face as she looked into his eyes. She had a thousand questions for him, a dozen things to tell him, but that could all wait. Right now, they both needed to revel in the pleasure of being reunited. “I love you,” she whispered, letting the words float across his skin. “I love you so much.” William smiled for the first time since she’d entered the room. Warmth radiated from his chest. His smile was so much better in person than in memory, even with the unfamiliar beard.
He rubbed his nose against hers. “I love you, too, Lizzie.” This time, when he kissed her, he didn’t hold anything back. He poured years of yearning and unspent passion into the kiss and, when they parted a few moments later, Lizzie’s cheeks were flushed and her chest heaved. His skin tingled everywhere she touched him and he wanted nothing more than to keep kissing her. His injured leg had other plans, however, and pain forced him to pull away to sit back down. Concern crossed Lizzie’s features.
“Are you okay?” She dragged the chair from the other side of the table next to his.
“I’ll be fine,” he assured her. “My leg just needs a rest.” Her forehead was wrinkled and he reached out to smooth it gently. “I’m fine, really.”
Lizzie wasn’t convinced but she didn’t want to push. He’d obviously been through a lot, and though she wanted to know everything, to be able to exorcise his demons for him, she knew it wasn’t that simple. Instead, she grasped his hand as he pulled it away, twining their fingers together and bringing them to rest on her lap. He responded by rubbing his thumb back and forth over her skin, sending small currents of electricity through her veins.
William studied her, taking in the dark circles beneath her eyes, the tension in her shoulders, the weariness in her eyes. The toll his absence had taken on her was apparent, and he wished there was a way that he could have prevented her from having to suffer through it, that he could erase her pain. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry that I’ve been gone for so long, I —“
“William.” Lizzie stopped him, her heart breaking at his apparent need to apologize when he had clearly been through hell. “We’re together now, that’s all that matters.”
Together, William thought. It still didn’t feel entirely real. In fact, if she wasn’t still holding his hand he would have thought she was a vision that would fade away. “How’s Gigi?” he asked after a long beat of silence. Next to Lizzie, his sister had been the person to fill his thoughts the most in the long hours he’d sat alone in his cell. He shuddered, not wanting to think of that awful place.
“She’s good.” Lizzie wondered how much to tell him. Should she fill him in on Matthew and the wedding, or let Gigi do that herself? It was Gigi’s news to tell but Lizzie didn’t want him to be sideswiped by it either. She wished she’d thought to ask Gigi about it before she’d left. Lizzie decided to play it safe. “She’s actually got some news, but I think it’s best that I let her fill you in when we get home.”
Home. William liked the sound of that. He’d been dreaming of home for over three years and right now, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be. He wondered fleetingly what Gigi’s news might be. A lot of time had passed, had she met someone? Was she sick? No. He dismissed the thought quickly. Lizzie had implied that it was happy news. That was good. He wanted nothing more than for his sister to be healthy and content. “No hints?”
Lizzie laughed and the sound shot right to his heart. God he had missed it. Missed her. “No hints.”
As her laughter faded, Lizzie retreated into her thoughts. She knew that she needed to tell him about Liam, but she wasn’t sure where to begin. It was going to be overwhelming enough for him to return to life after being away so long, but to learn he had a son whose infancy he had missed out on? She knew the news would hurt him and, after everything he’d been through, she didn’t want to cause him any more pain. Still, she knew it would be worse if she waited, or if he found out when they got home. She needed to tell him now, to give him time to prepare himself. She closed her eyes, gathering her courage.
William noticed the change in Lizzie’s mood. “Lizzie? What is it? What’s wrong?” She swallowed visibly and he could tell that whatever it was, it was weighing heavily on her mind. He squeezed her hand encouragingly. “Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
Lizzie took a deep breath. He was right. “Before you…When we… We have…” Ugh. She was failing at this. She just needed to rip off the bandaid. “I need to tell you about Liam.”
Liam? Who was Liam? William’s chest seized. Had Lizzie met someone else while he’d been away? The thought made his stomach lurch.
“I need to tell you about our son.” Lizzie continued, gripping his hand more tightly and relief flowed through him as her words registered. Lizzie hadn’t met another man. She wasn’t leaving him. Liam was their son.
Son. William froze, as the full implications of Lizzie’s news washed over him. Son? They had a son? How? What? When?
William’s face was as white as a sheet. Lizzie’s pulse quickened as she rushed to elaborate, to make it okay. “Liam is amazing, William. He has your eyes and your thoughtfulness and he’s so incredibly bright. He’ll be three next month.”
“I’m a father?”
Lizzie bit her lip and nodded. “Yes.”
“His name is Liam?”
“Well, it’s actually William, to carry on the tradition, but we all call him Liam.”
A lump had formed in William’s throat. He had a son. A son who was named after him and his father and grandfather before him. He didn’t know what to say. “What’s his middle name?” He asked finally.
“He doesn’t have one.” Lizzie met his gaze. “Yet.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I saved it for you to choose.”
The fact that she had saved a major decision like that for him, even in his absence, moved him. It was a testament to her faith that he hadn’t abandoned her. “Thank you.”
“Wait, you were pregnant?” Details were starting to snap into place. “When I left for my trip, you were pregnant?”
“I found out after our skype call that night. I was going to tell you when you called the next day but…” She cast her gaze at the floor, not wanting to finish that thought.
“I’m sorry, Lizzie, that you had to go through all of that alone. I wish I had been there, I wish I had known.” Regret passed over him. He had missed so much. His son was three and he had yet to lay eyes on him. The walls in the room suddenly felt like they were moving in on him. They needed to get out of there. They needed to go home.
“I wish that too,” Lizzie admitted. “But we can’t go backward, no matter how much we might want to, we can only go forward.”
Forward. Forward sounded good. Especially if it meant getting them out of this tiny little room and out of Guatemala. “You’re right. What’s done is done.” He stood up, pulling Lizzie to her feet. “Let’s go home.”
Lizzie quickly kissed the corner of his mouth. Being home, with William and Liam was all she wanted. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The next flight to San Francisco wasn’t until later that evening, so after filling in a bunch of paperwork, they retreated to William’s hotel room for a while. Lizzie’s lack of sleep on the plane the night before was beginning to catch up with her, and as William closed the door behind them, she yawned.
“You’re exhausted,” he remarked softly, gliding his thumb along one of the dark marks under her eye. “Did you sleep at all on the flight down?”
Lizzie shook her head. “Not really. I tried but I was restless, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get my mind to relax.” She raked a finger through his hair. “What about you? Your hair is matted, did you not have a chance to shower yet this morning?”
“I showered briefly last night, but mostly I just rinsed off the dirt. I was so exhausted, I basically slept until right before you got here.”
“Come here.” Lizzie led him into the small bathroom.
“Lizzie, you don’t have to—“ William began as he realized what she was doing.
“Let me help you,” she pled. “Please let me take care of you.” Any remaining protests he had, fled immediately at the twinge of hysteria in her voice. If this was something that she needed, he would give it to her gladly.
Lizzie wordlessly undressed him, mentally cataloging every bruise and scrape, sometimes pressing her lips gently to the worst of them. She nearly cried out when she saw his leg. It was misshapen and oddly curved, and if she wasn’t very much mistaken, it was swollen. She remembered what John had said, about having someone look at it back in the states, and she made a note to have him seen by a doctor as soon as possible. She ran her fingers over it cautiously. “Does it hurt?”
“Not as much as it did.” He deliberately neglected to tell her how much it had burned as he’d trudged through the jungle when he’d made his escape, how at some points the pain had made it nearly impossible to keep going, how the thought of finally seeing her again had motivated him to keep pushing himself onward.
Lizzie opened her mouth as if to inquire further, then thought better of it, instead twisting to turn on the water. After quickly stripping off her own clothes, she took William’s hands and led him into the shower.
The warm water felt nice against his aching muscles, and as Lizzie began to gently massage shampoo into his hair, he let his eyes flutter shut and relaxed against her. After a few minutes, his leg was throbbing and he reluctantly lowered himself to sit down. He felt Lizzie’s hands still, then tense against his scalp for a moment, before she eased herself onto her knees behind him.
Lizzie swallowed a lump in her throat as she rinsed the shampoo out of his hair. The fact that he couldn’t even stand long enough to wash his hair broke her heart. When she was done, she leaned against him, wrapping her arms around his chest to hug him from behind. They stayed that way until the water turned cold and they were both shivering.
A short while later, Lizzie lay alone on the bed while William brushed his teeth. William had urged her to try and get some sleep, but even though she knew he was only a few feet away, her lungs burned with irrational panic. Her need to touch him, to keep him in her sight, was strong and as soon as he joined her again, she wrapped her arms around him tightly, nuzzling herself up against his back as she finally managed to catch her breath. Silent tears slid down her cheeks as she clung to him. To be able to hold him and touch him after all this time felt surreal. and she couldn’t shake the fear that their reunion wasn’t just an extremely vivid dream.
William felt Lizzie’s body shake gently against him and the depth of her emotion caused his own eyes to well up. He had missed her so desperately for so long, and to have her here with him now was unbelievably amazing. The tender way in which she had cared for him in the shower had moved him deeply, though he couldn’t help but feel that he’d failed her by not even being able to stand long enough for her to finish. His love for her overwhelmed him and he turned to face her, gathering her in his arms.
They clung to each other, both lost in their own emotions, until they drifted off to sleep.
Gigi checked on Liam for the fourth time since he’d gone down for his nap, before slipping out of his room to resume her pacing. Ever since Lizzie had left for Guatemala the night before, Gigi hadn’t been able to settle. She had taken the day off work, knowing she wouldn’t be able to concentrate, but she wondered now if maybe she should’ve have gone in. Caring for Liam had distracted her a little, but in these quiet moments, she felt restless and anxious.
William is alive. Those three words rang through her mind on a loop. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around them. After three and a half years of missing him, three and a half years of convincing herself that her brother was dead and she needed to accept it, he was alive? It was unbelievable and wonderful and horrifying all at once. What was it that had kept him away for all those years? What shape was he going to be in? Would he ever forgive her for giving up on him and believing that he’d died? Gigi’s stomach plummeted. She knew, rationally, that her brother would understand, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d let him down.
Paired with her guilt was the nagging sensation that none of it was real. She was terrified she was going to wake up and find out that it was all a dream and, despite the fact that Lizzie had gone to get him, she didn’t think any of it was going to feel real to her until William was back, and she could see him with her own eyes.
The ringing of the phone caused her heart to race, and as she went answer it, her hand shook. “Hello?”
“Gigi?” It was Lizzie and she sounded… tired but happy. Had she seen William then?
Questions tumbled out of her. “Have you seen him? Is he okay? Are you coming home? Does he know about the wedding? About Liam?”
“I have. He’s alright, at least physically he is, mostly. Mentally, I think he’s still adjusting. We both are.”
“Mostly?” Gigi tensed. “What do you mean, mostly?”
“He has some injuries, his leg mainly. I don’t know the whole story yet, but I think he broke it during the earthquake. It’s left him with a limp.” Something in Lizzie’s voice made Gigi think she was downplaying it but she let it drop.
“When are you coming home?”
“We’re booked on a flight later tonight, so we’ll get in to San Francisco early tomorrow morning. That’s actually why I was calling. Do you think you can take Liam to your place for a few nights? Would Matthew mind? I think William needs a few days to adjust to being back before he’s ready to meet him.”
“Of course I can, but—“ Gigi trailed off, not sure how to articulate her feelings. If her brother was going to be back tomorrow, she really didn’t think she could wait a few days to see him. She needed confirmation, needed to hug him, to tell him she loved him.
Lizzie sensed what she was asking. “You could come by tomorrow morning? Could Matthew maybe watch Liam? I don’t think William will be quite ready to meet him by then.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He loves Liam.” Gigi paused. “Thank you, Lizzie.”
“Trust me, I understand the need to see him right away. I’ll even make myself scarce so you can have some time alone with your brother. Oh, and in answer to your earlier question, no, I haven’t told him about Matthew. I did tell him you have some news, but that’s all. I thought you’d want to tell him yourself.”
“Thank you. I do.” Gigi heard babbling from the other room. Liam was awake. “I should go, Liam just woke up from his afternoon nap.”
“Give him a big hug and kiss for me, okay?”
“Of course.” She paused. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a good flight.”
“Thank you, we will.”
William felt irrationally nervous and self conscious as he and Lizzie walked through the airport to their gate that evening. After years of near isolation, being around so many people made him uneasy. He clung more tightly to Lizzie’s hand and she turned to him, flashing him an encouraging smile that made him feel instantly better. He had missed her so much.
Lizzie kept her hand firmly in his, being careful to walk slowly so he wouldn’t have to stress his leg further to keep up with her. She’d noticed that his limp seemed to worsen if he stood still for too long, or if he walked too quickly or too far. Not for the first time, she wondered how he’d managed to make it through the jungle on his own, and she marvelled at his strength and determination. He had obviously pushed himself to his limit to get back to her, all the while, she had been at home, preparing herself to admit he was gone for good. Guilt threatened to overpower her but she fought it, reminding herself that his return was the most important thing.
They reached their gate and sat side by side on uncomfortable plastic chairs. William sighed involuntarily as the pressure on his leg lifted.
“I’m okay,” he assured Lizzie when she shot him a concerned glance. She drew her bottom lip between her teeth, and he couldn’t resist leaning forward to kiss the corner of her mouth. “You’re adorable when you’re worried.”
William’s whispered words clung to her skin, sending shivers up and down her spine. “I can’t help it.” She rested her hand gently on his knee. “I hate the thought of you being in pain.”
“It really doesn’t hurt that much, it just aches if I’m on it for too long.”
Lizzie wasn’t convinced but she didn’t want to upset him, so she let it drop. She was about to change the subject when an announcement that they would be boarding soon came on over the loud speaker. Lizzie pulled their passports out of her purse and handed him his.
William stared at it for several seconds. He hadn’t registered that she had it when she’d checked them in earlier. “How do you have my passport? I thought surely it was lost.”
“It was.” Lizzie regarded him carefully, considering how much to say. “Fitz found it in the wreckage from your hotel.” A lump formed in her throat as she recalled the day he’d given it to her, what Fitz had thought it meant.
“Fitz was here?” William felt a pang at the thought. They all must have been so worried. He’d caused that. Not on purpose, but his absence was to blame for a lot of pain. He wished there were some way he could make it up to them.
Lizzie swallowed. “Yes. Fitz came down to look for you a few months after the earthquake.” She looked at him. “I wanted to come myself, but—“ she laid a hand protectively over her stomach as she trailed off.
“You were pregnant,” William concluded. How terrified and alone she must have felt. His heart ached at the thought. “I’m glad you stayed safe. If anything had happened to you or Liam—”
“I know. I made the right choice, although I questioned it afterward. Maybe if I’d come myself, I would have found you. Maybe I could have prevented all this.” She gestured to his leg.
“Lizzie, no. You can’t think like that. What happened to me, it wasn’t your fault.”
She looked away. She wanted to ask him more about what had happened. She had fragments but there were gaps, and a part of her wanted, no, needed them filled in. At the same time, she wasn’t certain she really wanted to know. She was a walking contradiction. Regardless, this wasn’t the time or place to discuss it, so she went back to Fitz and the passport. “Anyway, when Fitz returned, he gave me your passport. It was all he could find.” Lizzie’s voice broke on the last word as she was thrust back to that moment in her mind, recalling the anguish and disbelief she’d felt when Fitz had told her he thought William was dead.
William’s chest felt tight as he registered the implication of her words. They must have thought that he was dead. He couldn’t imagine how painful that must have been for everyone.
The pre-boarding announcement came over the loud speaker, rousing Lizzie from her thoughts. She turned to her husband and forced a smile, pushing her dark thoughts away. She offered a hand to help him up. “Come on, let’s go home.”
As their flight approached San Francisco, William grew more and more unsettled. How would Gigi react when she saw him? And Fitz? And his son?
He closed his eyes at the thought of his son. During the flight, Lizzie had shown him some pictures on her phone, and William had felt a rush of warmth as he took in the little boy’s bright blue eyes and vibrant, happy smile. Despite the obvious turmoil Lizzie had undergone in the time he’d been away, his son seemed relatively unaffected. At least from the pictures. William worried though about how Liam would respond to him. Would he understand that William was his father? Would there be a connection between them, even though they’d been separated for so long?
Sensing her husband’s unease, Lizzie placed a hand atop his. “It’s going to be okay.”
“How can you be so certain?”
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Because, whatever comes, we’ll be able to face it together.”
He tilted his head so it was resting against hers. “That is very true.”
Lizzie turned to kiss his cheek and pulled away scowling when she was rewarded with a mouthful of beard. “One of the first things we’re doing when we get home is shaving that thing off your face.” After you see a proper doctor, she added in her head. She wouldn’t be convinced that he was really okay until he’d had a full physical.
“You don’t like it?”
“Wait. You do?” Lizzie studied his face. “I can’t tell if you’re joking or being serious.”
“This thing is hideous. Also, it smells. Trust me, I want it gone as much as you do.” It also reminded him of the countless days he’d spent imprisoned, unable to groom himself properly, but he purposefully left that part out. Lizzie didn’t need to be reminded of what he’d been through. “A haircut would be appreciated as well.” He added lightly, fingering his hair, and immediately getting caught on a tangle. Lizzie’s attention earlier had helped a little, but really it was beyond hope. Besides, he was looking forward to having it his usual length again. Perhaps it would help him feel more normal.
“I think we can arrange that.” Lizzie’s stomach lurched suddenly as the plane dropped altitude. She gripped William’s hand. They’d be landing any minute now.
Sleep was eluding Gigi. She’d lost track of how many hours it had been since Matthew had fallen asleep, his arm draped lazily across her abdomen, his breath coming in even intervals. She was tired, but she couldn’t seem to make her mind slow down enough for her to drift off to sleep.
William and Lizzie were on a plane back to San Francisco already. When morning came, her brother would be back. Tomorrow, she was going to see him and she had no idea what to expect, not really. She twisted her body, trying to get more comfortable on the off chance that it would help her sleep. She sighed. Who was she kidding?
Next to her, Matthew’s eye’s cracked open. “Gigi?” he mumbled sleepily. “You need your rest.”
She turned to him, planting a kiss on his forehead and smiling down at him fondly. “I know, I’m trying.”
Matthew opened his eyes further, edging up on his pillow a bit as he studied her face. “You’re worried about tomorrow.”
Sometimes Gigi found it disconcerting the way that Matthew so often knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling, but times like now, it was convenient and meant she didn’t need to explain herself. “I know it’s silly.”
“It’s not silly at all.” Matthew sat up properly and Gigi followed suit, snuggling herself up against him, her head resting on his shoulder. He immediately put an arm around her. “It’s been a long time since you saw your brother. It’s only natural that you’d be nervous.”
“It still doesn’t seem real,” Gigi confessed. “I know I should be feeling happy and excited that he’s alive but, mostly I just feel confused.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. This was sudden and unexpected.”
“You’re not kidding.” Gigi bit her lip. “A lot has changed since he’s been gone. I’ve changed.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you’re his sister and he loves you.”
“No. That’s true.” Gigi shifted so she could look up at his face. “I’m going to tell him about the wedding tomorrow. And about you, obviously.”
Matthew smiled. “I assumed as much.” He paused. “Are you worried about that?”
“No. Of course not. William’s always been overprotective but he’s also incredibly supportive. You’re amazing Matthew, and William will see that. I think he’ll like you and he’ll be happy for me.” Gigi stretched up to kiss him lightly.
Sensing there was more, Matthew didn’t respond. Instead, he just held her and waited patiently, shoving aside his own concerns about meeting Gigi’s brother.
“I’m worried he’s going to be upset that I was going to get married without him there though,” Gigi said in a rush. “One of the most important days of my life and I almost experienced it without him. We’re getting married in two weeks, Matthew, he’ll know. He’ll know that I gave up on him. He’ll know that I thought he was dead.”
Tears slid down her face and Matthew immediately wrapped his other arm around her, giving her a tight hug. “I’m sure he’ll understand. You had no way of knowing what would happen, Gigi. Do you really think he would have preferred for you to put your entire life on hold forever?”
“No. I guess not.”
Matthew kissed the top of her head. “It’s going to be okay, Gigi. Your brother is alive, focus on how wonderful that is.” Matthew closed his eyes, grateful that Gigi couldn’t see his face. He would give anything for his own brother to be alive again.
“You’re right.” Gigi mentally berated herself. She should be celebrating the fact that her brother was alive, not fretting over things she couldn’t change. “It is wonderful. Miraculous really.”
She pulled out of the hug and looked up at him. There was a shadow in his gaze and Gigi kicked herself. Here she was, panicking about her brother being alive again, when he could never have the same outcome. How could she be so insensitive? She cupped his cheek. “I’m sorry. I know this must be difficult for you.”
“I will be fine. Really.” Gigi narrowed her eyes skeptically and he sighed. He really was okay. Sure, he’d recently indulged in a few ‘what if’ scenarios regarding his brother, but the circumstances were completely different. He was at peace with how things had turned out. “I won’t pretend that I don’t miss my brother a little more than usual, but I will be okay.”
Gigi searched his face for confirmation that he wasn’t just trying to make her feel better. She loved him so much that the thought of hurting him, even inadvertently, made her chest feel tight. She vowed to herself that she’d be more attentive in the future. With that thought in mind, she closed the distance between them, conveying her feelings with actions instead of words. Matthew responded in kind, and soon, they were both naked and breathless.
When they lay tangled together afterward, Gigi rested her head against his chest and let her eyes drift closed. For the first time since she’d learned that William was alive, her mind was calm and quiet. Contented, she matched the rhythm of her breathing to Matthew’s until she finally fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Despite the fact that they were both tired and weary from the flight, William requested that they stop at a barber shop on the way home. Lizzie argued that they should go to the hospital instead, to have him looked over properly, but William protested, claiming he was fine and that he just needed to get back to normal as soon as possible. After he agreed to let her make him an appointment with his doctor as soon as the weekend was over, Lizzie let it go and consented to visiting a barber shop.
It was still fairly early when they entered the city, but thanks to a quick search on her phone, Lizzie was able to locate one that was open. She sat in the waiting area, observing carefully as William’s hair was clipped and his face shaved. With every motion of the electric razor, a little more of his bare skin was revealed, until his nearly forgotten features were clearly visible. As amazing as it had been to see him already, the long hair and unfamiliar beard had been strange and disconcerting, and tears prickled in the corners of her eyes, now at the relief of seeing him the way that she remembered.
William stared at himself in the mirror, feeling lighter and more himself now that he wasn’t plagued by all the extra hair. He ran a hand across his chin. He couldn’t remember the last time his face had felt as clean and smooth. As soon as the barber finished, William went to Lizzie, sweeping her into his arms as he kissed her, relishing in the sensation of feeling her skin against his again.
Her cheeks were rosy when she pulled away, and as she paid the barber, she kept shooting him small glances that caused his stomach to flip. God, he had missed her.
A short while later, Lizzie led the way up to their apartment. As she slid the key into the lock, she felt William grip her other hand more tightly as he inhaled sharply. Squeezing his hand, she gave him an encouraging smile and pushed the door open.
William surveyed the room as he entered. It was familiar and foreign all at once. The furniture was still mostly the same but there were additions, many of them involving brightly colored toys that were scattered along the floor. Beyond the living room, he could see that the dining room now featured a highchair and colorful plastic dishes were splayed across the counter. Everywhere he looked, there were signs that a child lived there. A child that was his. A child he had yet to meet. He swallowed a lump in his throat. Just how much had he missed?
Lizzie bent down, scooping up some of the toys and dropping them into a basket. “I’m sorry, I guess Gigi didn’t have a chance to clean up before she left last night.”
“It’s okay, Lizzie. It doesn’t bother me.” That was the truth. The apartment looked lived in, homey. It was obviously the home of a family. His family. And even though it felt a little unfamiliar to him now, he’d get used to it. He just needed time to adjust.
“Are you hungry? Do you want breakfast?” Lizzie breezed into the kitchen, opening the fridge only to close it in disgust a moment later. She hadn’t been shopping in at least a week. She went to the cupboard and pulled out pancake mix. That would work. “Pancakes? I’m not sure exactly what time Gigi’s coming. I’ll call her in a bit to find out.”
“Pancakes sound good.” William gestured down to the baggy jeans and tee shirt the embassy had given him to replace his old and torn clothes. “I’d really like to change though.”
Lizzie put the pancake mix on the counter and started walking towards the bedroom. “Oh sure, your clothes are all in the same place.”
“Lizzie.” He stopped her with a gentle touch to her arm. “Make the pancakes. You don’t have to come with me.” Panic flashed in her eyes and he instinctively hugged her. “Nothing’s going to happen to me in the bedroom… unless you suddenly got a dangerous pet you haven’t warned me about.”
That earned him a small laugh. “You’re right, I’m being silly.” She pulled away, her smile forced. “You go change. I’ll start breakfast.”
Lizzie had to force herself not to follow him as he headed toward the bedroom. He was here. He was in the apartment. Just because he was in another room didn’t mean he was going to suddenly evaporate and disappear on her again. She took a deep breath. She could do this. Picking up the pancake mix, she focused on the directions and started to gather what she needed, all the while straining to hear signs of William’s movements to assure herself that he was indeed still there and okay.
As William walked down the hallway, he noticed that the door to his old office was open and he was drawn toward it. He paused in the doorway. This must be Liam’s room. He took in the bright colored walls and the small mural of a family of turtles and sea creatures that was painted on the wall above a crib. Books lay in haphazard piles next to a rocking chair and a few toys lay on the floor. This was the space where Lizzie had started to raise their son without him because he had left her with no other options. He swallowed a lump in his throat and entered the room slowly, trying to imagine himself putting his son to bed or reading to him in the rocking chair. He fingered the soft green blanket in the crib and brought it to his nose, inhaling a mixture of scents he couldn’t quite identify. He had known about his son for about twenty-four hours now but it wasn’t until this moment, as he stood in Liam’s room, that it really began to sink in, to feel real. A tiny human being that he had helped to create lived in this room, and suddenly William couldn’t wait to meet him.
Emotion overwhelmed him and he forced himself to leave the room before he fell apart completely. Lizzie was already concerned enough about him, he didn’t need to add to her worries. He was in their bedroom before he realized he was still gripping Liam’s blanket.
Gigi’s knees were shaking as she knocked on the door to Lizzie and William’s apartment. The fact that she was this nervous to see her own brother was ridiculous and she took a calming breath, smoothing her palms over her dress, while she waited for an to answer.
Gigi knew that there was a fifty-fifty chance that it would be William answering the door, but all the same, it was a shock when it swung open to reveal her brother’s familiar face. He was alive. It hadn’t been a dream or a cruel joke. He was real and he was standing right in front of her, looking almost exactly the same as he had the last time she’d seen him. A little thinner, maybe, but otherwise the same.
“William!” She thrust herself into his arms with more force than she’d intended, causing him to stumble backward.
“Gigi.” His voice was soft and full of emotion that made her want to cling to him more tightly. She had missed him so much.
They hugged for several long minutes before William finally closed the door and led her into the living room. He had spent so many days thinking about his sister, and wondering how she was doing, that it felt rather surreal to have her sitting right there in front of him.
“Where’s Lizzie?” Gigi asked, not knowing what else to say.
“She’s in the bedroom talking to Jane. She said we needed our privacy.” He studied his sister’s face. “How are you, Gigi? I want to know everything.”
Gigi didn’t respond. She was too busy staring at his leg. He’d been limping as he walked. She remembered Lizzie telling her that he had a bit of a limp, but seeing it had caused a pit to form in her stomach. “Your leg?” she asked finally.
He rubbed it. “It’s fine. A bit achy, but the swelling is already going down. Lizzie’s making me go see a doctor next week.”
“Good.” Her throat had gone dry. She wanted to ask him what had happened but she wasn’t sure she was ready to know. “You’re okay though? Really?”
William nodded. “I am now that I’m home.” He leaned forward. “Lizzie said you have news?”
Gigi’s pulse raced. She’d hoped to put off telling him about Matthew a little longer, but maybe it was better to just rip off the bandaid. She met her brother’s gaze and smiled. “I do. I’m getting married.”
William felt like someone had smacked him. Gigi? Married? “To whom?” He tried to remember if Gigi had been seeing anyone before things had gone sideways, but he couldn’t recall anyone significant.
“His name is Matthew Hastings.” Gigi knew her brother would want to know his job and financial viability, but given the circumstances, she decided on a watered down version. “He works at Pemberley.”
Pemberley? William couldn’t recall any Hastings at Pemberley, but he supposed they could have hired someone new. He had been gone for a long time. Things change. In fact, given his extended absence, the board would have needed to fill his own position. He froze, as facts combined with the hesitation in Gigi’s voice, fell into place. “Gigi, what aren’t you telling me?”
Gigi sighed. She should have known her brother would see right through her. “He’s the current CEO.”
“Wouldn’t that make him your boss?”
“Not you too,” Gigi groaned. “Lizzie asked the same thing when she found out.”
“I think it’s a valid concern. If he has a position of power over you —“
“It’s not like that, William. At all. Matthew is, well, he’s amazing. He’s caring, understanding, and patient. He helped me through… a lot over the past few years. We were friends first and I was the one who started things.” Gigi felt her cheeks go hot as she recalled the night she’d practically thrown herself at Matthew during the New Year’s party. It was hard to believe that had been over a year ago. So much had changed since then.
William studied his sister shrewdly, noting the flush of her cheeks and the way her eyes sparkled when she talked about her boyfriend. Not boyfriend, fiancé, he corrected himself, not quite able to wrap his mind around the word in reference to his sister. “You really love him, don’t you?”
Gigi grinned. “I really do. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”
“And he loves you? He treats you well?”
“Yes. Of course. I wouldn’t be with him if he didn’t.”
“Then I’m happy for you.” William smiled and Gigi felt some of the tension lift from her shoulders. That hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared. “When is the wedding then? This summer?”
“Two weeks. March 19th.” Gigi held her breath, waiting for her brother to freak out, to accuse her of forgetting about him.
“That’s not a lot of time to acquire the appropriate attire, but I’m sure we shall work something out.”
Gigi gaped at him. “You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
She looked down at her hands. “I almost got married without you there.”
William felt his chest tighten as he realized his sister was feeling guilty because she had moved on. He came to sit next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “Gigi, I’ve been gone for a long time. I didn’t know if I would ever make it back to you so how could you know that I was coming back? You needed to move on, to be happy, and that’s okay. I did not expect you to put your life on hold for me.”
“Lizzie did.” Gigi said, without thinking, and immediately regretted it when her brother stiffened. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“What did you mean then?” Not for the first time, William’s heart went out to Lizzie. What had he put her through? He felt sick.
“She believed in you. From the very beginning, she was sure that you were alive, that you were coming back. She never gave up on you, ever. We fought about it even. I kept telling her that she needed to let you go, to move on, and she refused. I was wrong, William. I should have listened to her. I should have believed in you. I’m so sorry.” As Gigi’s shoulders shook, William tucked her snuggly in his arms and rocked her gently, the way he had when she was a little girl.
“Oh, Gigi,” he whispered into her hair. “It’s okay. You did what you had to do in order to survive. You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m the one who’s sorry.”
“You?” Gigi pulled away and looked at him with tear-dampened eyes. What did he have to apologize for? “It’s not your fault that you were gone. None of us could have predicted that there’d be an earthquake or that you’d…” she trailed off, not knowing how to finish. She still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened.
“Whether I meant to or not, the fact remains that I left you. I abandoned you, left you without a family. I can’t begin to imagine how much that must have hurt you, how much strength it must have taken to get through that on your own.”
“I wasn’t alone. Not completely. I had Lizzie, and her family… and Matthew.” Gigi offered a shaky smile. “None of that matters now though. What happened… it’s over now.” Gigi hugged him again. “I’m really glad you’re back, William.”
The morning after Lizzie and William returned from Guatemala, she woke to find herself cradled in his arms. At first, she thought she was dreaming again, and she expected the sensation of his presence to fade the way it had so many times in the past three years. And then he moved in his sleep and reality rushed back to her. He wasn’t just a figment of her imagination. He was real.
She turned carefully so she could see him, her heart quickening as she observed him in his slumber. It had been far too long since she’d been able to do this. Far too long since she’d awoken in his arms. Her gaze glided over him as she memorized and categorized his features in her mind. He was still very much the same, but there were little, almost imperceptible differences. A small scar near his left eye, new lines on his forehead, the way his brows knit together with concern as he slept.
He was still reluctant to talk about what had happened to him, and that was okay. What she did know was horrible enough and the night before, she’d had dreams about him being locked in a room with no door, of people trying to hurt him, of him huddled in a corner alone. The images plagued her, even now, and a tear slid down her cheek. She wished she could make whatever pain he’d gone through, whatever horrors, vanish, but she couldn’t. All she could do was be there for him whenever he needed her.
Unable to resist offering him (or herself) comfort any longer, she kissed the concerned lines in the center of his forehead, then the scar next his eye, then his lips. He mumbled incoherently against her mouth and she knew the instant he was properly awake by the way that he started to kiss her back.
“Good morning,” he said huskily after becoming thoroughly reacquainted with her mouth. “That was a nice way to wake up.”
Lizzie blushed. “I couldn’t resist.”
He brushed a stray piece of hair away from her face, letting his hand remain against her cheek after. “I’m glad.” He captured her lips again, rolling her onto her back. He rose onto his knees to get better leverage and suddenly cried out.
Alarmed, Lizzie immediately helped him to lie back on the pillows. “What’s wrong?”
“My leg,” he gasped, adrenaline still shooting through his body from the pain.
Lizzie kicked the blankets away, moving to pull his pajamas up so she could have a better look at his leg. It was still swollen and, if she wasn’t very much mistaken, it looked bruised. She mentally cursed herself for forgetting about his injury. He needed to be looked at by a doctor before they tried to do anything else physical.
“It’s fine.” William insisted as the pain receded. He sat up and quickly tugged the fabric back over his leg as she reached out to touch it. It was ugly and disfigured. There was no need for her to see it.
“How can you be sure? You broke it three years ago, it shouldn’t be hurting anymore. Maybe we should go to the ER?”
“I’m sure it’s just inflamed because I’m not used to being on it this much. I’ll go to the doctor this week. That’s soon enough.”
Lizzie wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t want to fight so she let it drop. She’d call his doctor when they opened on Monday morning and take the first appointment available. “Okay.”
He kissed her forehead. “Lizzie, I’m going to be fine. I promise.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and got to his feet, clenching his teeth so he wouldn’t wince as he felt some pain. “I’m going to have a shower.” Somehow he managed to make it to the bathroom without too much limping. Lizzie didn’t need an invalid to look after. He wanted her to see him whole, not broken.
Later that afternoon, Lizzie and William walked from the apartment to a nearby playground to meet Gigi and Liam. At breakfast that morning, William had said he didn’t want to wait any longer to meet his son, so they’d arranged to meet Gigi and Liam at the park. Lizzie would have just had Gigi bring him to the apartment, but she thought it would be easier on everyone if the first meeting was somewhere neutral.
As they approached the park, William’s stomach did a somersault and he reached for Lizzie’s hand, gripping it hard.
She stopped walking. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“Yes. We’ve already lost too much time together, I don’t want to miss out on anything else.” He took a deep breath. “I’m nervous, but I’m ready.”
Lizzie searched his face. She was worried it was too soon, that it was going to be too hard for William emotionally. He’d barely been back for twenty four hours, after all, but she also felt like they’d already lost a lot of time as a family and she understood his urgency. As eager as she was to have them all back together as a family, she wanted to make sure the transition went smoothly for all of them. It was going to be a big change for Liam to have his father home and, as much as she missed her son, even after only two days away, she didn’t want to bring Liam home until she was sure they were all ready for what that would entail. “Okay.”
Gigi was already there, standing at the base of a green plastic slide while a little boy with dark curly hair carefully sat down at the top and slid down. William’s heart skipped a beat as the child squealed with glee.
“More, Auntie E-e! More!” Liam ran around to the ramp and, as he used the railing to help pull himself up, William stared, mesmerized.
Lizzie stood next to her husband, tears stinging her eyes as she watched him observe their son. The love that was already stamped clearly across his face was enough to convince her that this had been the right decision. She held onto him as they stayed there for several minutes, watching from afar as Liam went down the slide three more times.
“He’s beautiful.” William’s voice was thick with emotion. He turned to Lizzie, his eyes as moist as her own. “I can’t believe we made him.”
“Me either.” Lizzie wiped his eyes with her thumb before swiping at her own. She took a deep breath and gripped his hand more tightly. “Ready to go talk to him?”
William’s chest tightened but he nodded.
Liam spotted them just as he completed his latest slide attempt. His little face lit up and he squirmed out of Gigi’s arms, waddling slightly from side to side as he ran towards them. As Lizzie stepped towards him, William hung back, suddenly feeling tentative and uncertain.
“Mama!” Liam cried, throwing his arms around her legs. “Mama, I slided!”
Lizzie bent down to his level and hugged him. “I saw!”
“On a big boy slide!” Liam added, in case she thought he meant the small baby one.
“I know! I’m so proud of you.”
He smiled and then tilted his head. “Why you goed ‘way, Mama?”
“Remember I told you I was going on an airplane?”
“Big plane. Goes ZOOOOOM!” He made a flight motion with his hand and Lizzie had to lean back to avoid being hit.
“Yes. That’s right, sweetheart. I went on a big plane so that I could go get your Daddy and bring him home.”
“Picture Daddy?” Liam reached into the pocket of his little red jacket and pulled out a crumpled photograph. “Hi!” he said to the picture and held it out to Lizzie. “Here.”
William felt a lump grow in his throat. His son carried a photograph of him in his pocket? Emotions overwhelmed him and he knew that Lizzie’s attempts at drying his eyes had been in vain. Gigi came to stand beside him and gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
Lizzie swallowed hard and scooped Liam into her arms, settling him on her hip. “Actually, Liam, Daddy is here now. Not just in the picture.” She took a few steps toward William and Gigi.
Liam regarded his father carefully, his head tilted and his eyes drawn together in deep concentration. He looked down at the picture in his hand, and then back at William. “Daddy you?” He held out the picture to William.
William nodded. “Yes. That’s me.”
“Hi.” He waved with the picture still in his hand, then twisted in Lizzie’s arms. His interest in the adults had waned. “Down, Mama. More slide”
Lizzie set him back on the ground and helped him tuck the photo back into his pocket. “Why don’t you ask Daddy to help you slide?”
Liam didn’t look entirely convinced. “You slide?”
William nodded. “I do.”
“Okay.” He reached up and wrapped a chubby little hand around his fingers and started to tug William toward the playground.
William stood in the doorway of his son’s room, watching as he slept contentedly. It had been a long few days for all of them. They had brought him home with them after the day of the park visit. William had been able to tell that Lizzie was missing Liam and, even though Liam was tentative around him, William didn’t want to let him go. Not even with Gigi. So he’d pulled Lizzie aside and suggested they just bring him home. Lizzie had been concerned that it would be too overwhelming for them all so soon, but William’s argument that they’d already lost so much time together had won her over.
The energy of the apartment had changed immediately once Liam was there. Suddenly it was loud all the time, either with play, or tears, or whining. Lizzie seemed to be in constant motion, always keeping one eye on their son while also making dinner or cleaning, and William was surprised to find that he felt very much in the way. Somehow, in his absence, Lizzie had fallen into a pattern and routine that was completely foreign to him. He wondered if it would be different if he’d been there from the beginning, but he knew that such thoughts were futile. There was no undoing what was already done.
It had only been a few days, but already William was madly in love with his son. He was a clever and curious child and William found he enjoyed just observing him play. It gave him a glimpse of who his son was and it also took his mind off other, darker thoughts.
Liam, however was still very weary of him, often engaging with him with him to play for only a few minutes at a time before turning to focus on something else or asking for Mama. Liam had refused to let William do anything for him, going so far as to dump his dinner on the floor that evening because William had given it to him instead of Lizzie.
Lizzie found William in the doorway of their son’s room and gently put a hand on his shoulder. “He’ll come around,” she whispered. “It’s not just you. Last week, he threw his apple juice at me. Sometimes, kids just have an off night.”
“Sometimes I feel like he hates me.”
“He doesn’t,” Lizzie assured him. “He just needs to get used to having you here. It’s new.”
“I guess.” The hurt and worry on William’s face made Lizzie ache for him. She knew how desperately he was trying to connect with their son, but she also knew that they couldn’t just fix three and a half years of absence in three days. That wasn’t how things worked.
She kissed his cheek. “Come on, let’s go to bed. Your doctor’s appointment is tomorrow morning and you need your rest.” William cast a last lingering look at their slumbering son and followed her out of the room.
“You don’t have to come with me tomorrow,” William told her once they were settled in their room together.
“I’d like to.”
“But you’ve already missed the last three days of work. I can manage on my own.”
Lizzie turned off the bedside lamp and tucked herself against him. “I know you can, but I had already booked the next two weeks off, since my family will be descending soon for Gigi’s wedding, so it was easy to just add this week on. There’s nothing urgent that can’t wait until the last week of March, and everyone understands why I want to be home right now.” She purposefully didn’t mention the fact that, anytime he was out of her sight, she felt panicky and anxious.
“You’re sure? I feel like I’ve completely disrupted your life.”
“William, no. Of course you haven’t. Is it an adjustment? Absolutely. But it’s an adjustment I will gladly accept over the alternative. You haven’t even been back a week yet. Give yourself a break, okay?”
He nodded. She was right. He was just feeling impatient. After more than three years trapped in a tiny, square room, he just wanted to feel like he had his life back.
By the end of his first week back in the US, William had undergone a full physical, at Lizzie’s request, and had an appointment scheduled with an orthopedic specialist for the week after Gigi’s wedding. His primary doctor had examined him thoroughly. After nearly four years in captivity, William had been malnourished and underweight, so the doctor had prescribed several supplements and dietary changes to help get him to back to full health.
The doctor had also examined his leg. He attributed the swelling and increased pain to William’s escape through the jungle, though he cautioned that the specialist would be able to make a more thorough diagnosis. Until then, he advised William to use a cane for support as needed, and to rest and ice his leg whenever it ached. He said the muscle in both legs was weak due to years of underuse and that William should try to maintain a light exercise regime.
The Saturday before Gigi’s wedding, and the day before Lizzie’s entire family started to invade, William, Lizzie, and Liam were invited to Gigi and Matthew’s for lunch. It was William’s first time meeting Matthew, and as they got ready to go, William felt a mixture of anxiety and curiosity about the man who had managed to catch his sister’s eye. Lizzie seemed to like him, and she’d filled him in on some of the details of their courtship, which eased his mind regarding Matthew’s position of authority over Gigi at work.
Still, he was surprised to find that he instantly liked the charismatic and friendly man when he greeted them at the door.
“You must be William,” he said genuinely as he offered a firm handshake. “It’s really great to meet you.”
“You as well.” William returned his handshake and followed Matthew into the small apartment. He was pleased to see touches of Gigi’s personality scattered throughout the room and, again his concerns eased. Matthew clearly respected his sister. That was good.
“William.” Gigi bounded out of the kitchen to envelop him in a hug. Between wedding prep and work, she hadn’t seen him nearly as much as she would have liked that week, and she was glad he’d agreed to come for lunch. She’d been anxious about him meeting Matthew and she’d wanted to make sure it happened before the insanity that was going to be wedding week.
“Gigi.” He studied her. “You look incredibly relaxed for someone who is getting married in a week.” He caught Lizzie’s gaze. “As I recall, you were an absolute wreck by this point before our wedding.”
Lizzie chuckled. “Gigi is much more patient in dealing with my mother than I was.”
“I don’t know about that. After over 200 phone calls from her this week, I’m almost ready to throw my phone out the window.” Gigi wrinkled her nose. “Then again, she’s taking care of pretty much everything except the dress, so I really shouldn’t complain.” She poked her brother’s shoulder. “She even found you something suitable.”
Liam’s patience with adult chatter waned and he squirmed in Lizzie’s arms, his legs flailing as he screamed, “DOWN!” Lizzie pulled off his jacket and set him on the floor. He made a beeline for the basket of toys under the coffee table and pulled out his favorite train. “Red,” he announced, getting on his knees and starting to manoever the train around the room.
“When does your family arrive?” William asked Matthew as they all seated themselves in the living room with drinks Gigi served them.
“Not until next Thursday.” Matthew shrugged. “Mom’s a teacher so she couldn’t really get time off. They have to be back home by Monday morning so it’s just going to be a short trek unfortunately.”
“They’re great though, William,” Gigi interjected. She’d only met them once, when they’d come out at Thanksgiving, but they’d instantly taken a shine to her. Especially Matthew’s mother, who now called her on a weekly basis, just to chat. Gigi felt pretty blessed when it came to other people’s families adopting her. “I think you’ll like them.”
William took a sip of his drink and looked back at Matthew. “What does your father do?”
“He’s an engineer.”
As the men slipped into easy conversation about design and engineering, Lizzie and Gigi exchanged a glance of relief. This had gone better than either of them had expected.
“William?” Gigi asked later, when they were all seated for lunch. She swallowed nervously.
“What is it Gigi? You look worried.”
She took a deep breath. “I was wondering how you would feel about walking me down the aisle on Saturday?”
William stared at her, deeply moved. “I would be honored.”
As anticipated, Mrs. Bennet arrived the day after Lizzie and William’s lunch with Gigi and Matthew.
“William.” Mrs. Bennet pulled him into a warm hug. “I can’t even begin to tell you how delighted I am that you are back. We were so worried about you..”
“Thank you, Mrs. Bennet.”
“Now, where’s my grandson? I need some snuggles before we get down to business. There are so many things to do. Everyone is going to need to pitch in.”
Liam poked his head out from around Lizzie’s legs. “BOO! Gwanny here I is .”
“So you are!” She enveloped him, smothering him with kisses that made him laugh with delight.
“Mom, Where’s dad?” Lizzie asked once Liam’s shrieks had died down.
“Oh, he’s not coming until later in the week. He’s working on a surprise for Gigi. Besides, you know how he is about big events. He’s not keen on all the hooplah, he’d rather stay out of all the messy stuff.”
“Lucky him,” Lizzie muttered, knowing that the next week was likely to be a series of crazy errands and tasks that her mother expected her to accomplish with a toddler in tow. It was a good thing Jane and Bing were arriving tomorrow, Jane was one of the only people who could keep Lizzie sane when her mother was in planning mode.
One by one, their family members arrived. Somehow, in the midst of the insanity, Jane managed to find a moment to pull her sister aside.
“How are you, Lizzie?”
Jane flashed her patented ‘I know you’re not really fine’ look. “Lizzie.”
Lizzie sighed. “I’m okay, Jane, really. It’s just tough is all. William has barely been home for two seconds and all this,” she gestured to the piles of tulle and flowers that surrounded them, “He’s overwhelmed by it all and I really can’t blame him. Plus…” she trailed off, thinking about how disheartened William looked every time he tried to connect with Liam. They were making progress, Liam had even asked William to put him in his highchair at dinner the other night, but she knew that William was struggling.
“Things are just different than I expected, is all.”
“What had you expected?”
“I don’t even know. I guess that it wouldn’t be so hard for us to get back to normal? That I wouldn’t feel at times like there are huge parts of him that I don’t know anymore? I still don’t know what he went through, Jane. I’m not sure I want to know, but at the same time I feel like I need to know. Most nights, he wakes up in the middle of the night looking terrified. I don’t know how to help him, how to fix it. He’s only been back a week though, so maybe it’ll improve?”
“Lizzie, he was gone for a very long time. You’ve both changed in that time. You became a mother in that time. It’s a lot for both of you to adjust to, and for Liam too. It won’t happen overnight. Healing is going to take time.”
“I know, it’s just all so complicated, Jane. You know how hard it was for me to finally reach a point where I was at peace with him not being here, and then BAM, suddenly he’s here and he’s everywhere, and it’s exactly what I wanted, but it’s not how I imagined it. He’s not HERE here. Not the way he was before and I just want everything to go back to how it was.“
“This isn’t something you can rush. Just take it one step at a time, and be aware that things might never be exactly how they were four years ago.”
“How come you’re so smart?”
“I’m the oldest, I have to be smart. It’s the rule.”
Lizzie laughed. “According to whom?”
“According to Lydia.”
“What about me?” Lydia asked, bounding into the room to join them.
“Lydia!” Jane grinned at her, it was rare these days for the three of them to be together alone. Bing was on kid duty with William. She fleetingly wondered how they were doing, then decided she didn’t want to know. Mom was out there too, if there was an issue, she’d fix it. “I was just telling Lizzie why I’m so smart.”
“Because you’re Jane, duh. Also you’re the oldest, that makes you smart by default.”
Lizzie scoffed. “This system defies logic.”
“Logic is for ninnies.” Lydia grinned. “Hey. While we’re alone, I have something to tell you guys.”
“You’re pregnant?” Jane guessed.
“Gross, no, I am so not ready for that. Not sure I even want kids.” She bounced with excitement. “It’s something else. Something secret.”
“Well, stop teasing us and spit it out.” Lizzie rolled her eyes playfully. Lydia had never quite lost her flair for the dramatics.
“Ugh you’re not even going to guess?”
Lizzie shook her head. “Impractical. Any minute now, a child or our mother is going to burst through that door with a demand. This lull is precious.”
“Lizzie has a point, Lydia.”
“Fine.” Lydia sighed heavily. “I’m getting published.”
“What?” Jane and Lizzie cried in unison.
“Getting what published, exactly?” Lizzie wanted to know.
“A book. A novel, actually. I wrote it a few years ago, and now it’s getting published this summer.”
Lizzie blinked at her. “You write? How did I not know that you write?” She turned to Jane. “Did you know?”
“No.” Jane hugged Lydia. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Me too,” Lizzie added, turning it into a group hug. “When did you start?”
“I don’t even remember anymore. I just had all these thoughts in my head and, one day, I started to write them down and they actually made sense. Then Darcy read them and said they were a good start, so I gained more confidence.”
“William knew about this?”
“Not about the publishing contract, that’s newer, but the writing, yes. He was one of the only people who read my stuff and he was always really supportive of it.” Lydia looked Lizzie in the eye. “Don’t be mad at him, okay? I swore him to secrecy and he respected my wishes. He was the one who kept suggesting that I tell you. I was actually going to when, well, you know what happened.”
Lizzie nodded, not wanting to think about her husband’s disappearance anymore. For nearly four years, it had defined her. Now, she wanted to set herself apart from it. “I’m not mad at him, don’t worry.”
“Good.” Lydia picked up a piece of bright pink tulle. “So, what exactly are we supposed to do with this?
“Make center pieces.” Jane held up an example. It was, of course, perfect. Crafting was easy when your name was Jane Bennet (Lee).
Lizzie held up her own, which resembled something akin to a birds nest, only more jumbled. “Easy for you to say.”
As William worked his way through the list of tasks Mrs. Bennet had given him, he paused, taking a moment to observe his sister in the other room. She was seated next to Mrs. Bennet, going over floral and seating arrangements, and he was suddenly struck by how much closer they seemed. Mrs. Bennet looked at Gigi, pride and love in her eyes, as they discussed the final details. It was evident to him, even from this distance, that Mrs. Bennet cared about Gigi as much as she cared about her own daughters, and the realization made him feel warmth.
Gigi had been without a mother for most of her life and, as much as his father, and later William himself, had tried to compensate for her, Gigi had missed out on a strong female presence in her formative years. Seeing her now, getting the care and attention that he knew she both craved and deserved was moving, and he felt a stab of deep affection for Mrs. Bennet.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Bennet further cemented Gigi’s acceptance by the Bennet family, when he presented Gigi with an early wedding gift. Gigi, Lizzie, and William were all gathered around the kitchen table putting wedding favors together, when Mr. Bennet wandered in from the guest room and took Gigi aside. With one eye on Gigi and Mr. Bennet, William attempted to finish the bow she’d started to tie onto one of the favors.
“Gigi,” Mr. Bennet gestured for her to sit next to him on the couch. “I know your wedding is still a few days away, but I wanted to give you part of your wedding gift a little early.” He handed her a wrapped box.
Her hands shook slightly as she opened it. Inside was a wooden object, roughly the size of a small shoebox. Gigi lifted it out, running her fingers over the beautiful pattern carved on the top. “Did you make this?” she asked, her throat suddenly dry. It was beautiful.
“I did. I have made similar boxes for all of my girls for their weddings. I call them keepsake boxes so you can keep a record of your favorite moments through your marriage. I made one for my wife in our first year of marriage, and hers is filled with photographs, letters, small items our children gave us when they were small. You can use yours however you like.”
Gigi blinked back tears. “Thank you,” she whispered feeling overwhelmed. The Bennets had always been careful to include her in their family, but this was a gesture that went beyond anything they’d ever done for her before.
Mr. Bennet kissed the top of her head. “Of course, my dear.” He offered her a smile. “I am glad that you have found someone who makes you so happy to share your life with. Matthew is a wonderful man.”
“He is. I’m very blessed to have him in my life. Just as I’m blessed to have you in my life.”
At the table, William found himself fighting back his own tears. He remembered the box Mr. Bennet had given Lizzie before their wedding and, to see him treating his sister just as he treated his own daughters, was extraordinary. He remembered Gigi mentioning that the Bennets had all been there for her when he’d been away, but he had not realized just how much they had embraced and welcomed into their family. His sister was thriving under their love and attention, and he would forever be grateful to all of them for that.
On the morning of Lizzie’s birthday, William woke before her. He allowed himself a long moment to linger, relishing in the contentment he felt at waking beside her each morning again. Being careful not to wake her, he slipped from the room and padded toward the kitchen with the intention of making her breakfast in bed.
As he passed Liam’s bedroom, movement caught his eye and he paused as Liam pulled himself up. “Hiiiii!” he said happily. William entered the room. So far, he hadn’t been alone with Liam when he was awake. There were always other people around, and though Liam had started to accept William’s presence, he would always go to Lizzie or Gigi or even Mrs. Bennet if he needed anything.
Liam grinned at him as he approached the crib and, as soon as William was close enough, Liam held up his arms and said, “Up. Pwease?”
Despite his nervousness and fear that he would somehow ruin this moment, William carefully lifted his son from the bed, noting instantly that he was wet. William still didn’t know where anything was, so it took him several minutes to locate Liam’s dry clothes and a diaper, during which time Liam pulled all the books off the shelf and scattered them across the floor.
Deciding to ignore the mess for now, William carefully eased his son to the floor and soon discovered that getting him dressed was a battle akin to a wrestling match. Legs kicked, limbs twisted, whines of protest were made, toys were thrown, but somehow, in the end, William managed to get his son changed and dressed without either of them sustaining bodily injury.
Feeling accomplished, William started to clean up the mess when Liam suddenly squealed and bolted from the room. He stumbled after him, managing to catch up with him in the hallway.
“Shhh,” William whispered, ignoring the pain in his leg, as he bent down so Liam could see his face. “Mama’s still sleeping.”
Liam tilted his head. “Mama ‘wake, now!”
“Not yet,” William’s leg was screaming at him. “It’s Mama’s birthday, I was going to make her a surprise. Do you want to help me?”
Liam’s eyes widened. “Birfday cake?”
“It’s a little early for that, I was thinking we would begin with breakfast.”
“No. Cake.” Liam’s face was serious. Apparently, cake was a big deal.
“We’ll compromise, how about pancakes?” William stood up and offered his hand to his son. “What do you think?”
Liam was looking up at him as though William had three heads, and William realized that maybe his words had gone over the boy’s head. “Okay,” Liam said finally, wrapping his hand around three of William’s fingers. “Me help.”
Half an hour later, the kitchen was a complete disaster. Liam had had no less than three tantrums, Mrs. Bennet had emerged from the guest room, and Lizzie had miraculously remained asleep. William had thought for sure that Liam’s second tantrum, which had involved shrieks of, “Me do!”, “No!”, and “Mine!” would have awakened her, but he was grateful it hadn’t. He was enjoying this time with his son, chaotic and overwhelming though it was.
Mrs. Bennet had quickly taken stock of the situation and, with her help, they had managed to put together a tray resembling something edible. Liam had poked his fingers through the stack of pancakes, managing to then smear syrup in his hair and across his cheek, but all in all, it looked okay.
“Should we take this to Mama?” William asked Liam after the boy had finished stuffing the last piece of his own pancake in his mouth.
“YES!” Liam climbed out of his highchair and tried to reach for the tray. “Me carry?”
“It’s too heavy,” William reasoned. “But you can carry this.” He started to hand his son a vase with a single flower in it, but Mrs. Bennet swooped in just as Liam was about to grasp it with his sticky hand.
“Hold on,” she said, taking a cloth and quickly wiping down her grandson. “There.” He still had syrup in his hair, but his hands were at least less likely to make a mess of everything.
Liam took the vase and started to run towards the bedroom yelling, “Mama wake up!” William wasted no time in following him.
Lizzie woke up in a panic. William wasn’t next to her, and for a moment she feared his return had been a dream, but then she noted the indent on his pillow and the bunching of the covers on his side of the bed and she began to breathe more easily. It was okay. He’d simply woken up before her. It was okay.
Still, she strained her ears for signs of life in the apartment and, when she was met with silence, she frowned. Pulling on her robe, she almost made it to the door before she heard anything. William was telling Liam that it was her birthday, and Liam was insisting that she needed cake.
Not wanting to disrupt the rare father and son moment, Lizzie retreated back to the bed, biting her lip to keep from laughing when she heard William use the word compromise. She didn’t want to see the state the kitchen would be in when that experiment failed. Nearly three year olds were the opposite of good compromisers.
Lizzie tried to go back to sleep, but instead she simply lay there, listening. Several times, she heard Liam fussing and each time, she was tempted to go out there and help, but she resisted. Liam was William’s son. He needed to figure out how to handle things like that on his own. It wasn’t the first time Liam had thrown tantrums and it most certainly would not be the last. He had a strong will. They were in for a lifetime of them. Still, it was difficult not to interfere.
When she heard Liam shout, “Mama wake up!” Lizzie quickly slid beneath the covers and pretended to be asleep, bracing herself for the inevitable impact.
Sure enough, Liam climbed up on the bed and threw himself on top of her. “Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama.” He put his face against her cheek. “You ‘wake, Mama?”
Lizzie opened her eyes.
“YAY!” Liam started to bounce and Lizzie winced as his knee struck her side. “Mama ‘wake!”
“So she is.” William caught the amusement in her gaze and had a suspicion she’d been awake for awhile. “Happy Birthday.” As he bent down to kiss her cheek, Liam started to grab at the tray and William nearly dropped it.
“Look what we maked, Mama!” Lizzie quickly kissed William back and glanced at the tray. She nearly laughed aloud when she noticed the little finger indents on her pancakes. Liam had definitely helped.
“It’s beautiful,” Lizzie kissed the top of Liam’s head and came away sticky. Her son needed a bath. She glanced at William. There were streaks of white powder in his hair. So did her husband, for that matter. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“Happy Birfday, Mama!” Liam started to crawl and bounce around the rest of the bed, laughing hysterically as he played.
William walked around to the foot of the bed and picked up the vase and flower that had been abandoned in the haste to wake up Lizzie. He set them on her tray. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“This is lovely, thank you.” She started to eat, keeping one eye on Liam and the other on her husband, as he perched himself on the bed by her knees. As far as birthdays went, this was right up there with I thought you were Chinese.
The day before Gigi’s wedding was busy for everyone. Mrs. Bennet had all the wedding plans under control, but family and friends were beginning to arrive. Matthew’s parents were due that evening, in time for the rehearsal dinner, but it was Aunt Catherine’s arrival that Gigi was most nervous about. She hadn’t been in town at all since William’s return and, given how adamant she had been that William was dead, Gigi had no idea what to expect. Lizzie and William seemed, not exactly back to normal, but okay and she didn’t want anything to rock that boat.
Her concerns were in vain however, for when Catherine arrived at Lizzie and William’s apartment, where everyone was gathered, she immediately swept William into a big hug.
“I am so happy to see you alive and well,” she told William as she pulled away. “Welcome home.”
Catherine gave Lizzie a pointed look. “Does this mean my great nephew finally has a proper middle name?”
Lizzie laughed. “We haven’t had a chance to talk about it in detail yet, but I promise, we will let you know when we have.”
“Actually, I had a thought on that front.”
“Really?” Lizzie looked at William in surprise.
“What do you think of ‘Bennet’ as his middle name? Your family has been so integral to his life so far, and he already has my family’s namesake, I believe that adding yours would balance it nicely.”
Across the room, Mrs. Bennet had frozen in place and was gaping at her son-in-law.
Swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat, Lizzie reached for her husband, her hands cupping his cheeks. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.” She kissed him, not caring that most of her family was in the room.
Gigi stood in her office, butterflies fluttering in her stomach, as she tried to resist looking down at the crowd that had gathered in the rose garden for her wedding.
A knock on the door drew her attention, and she smiled brightly as William opened the door and came in.
William paused, staring at his sister in awe. Gone was the little girl who had rolled her eyes at him and bothered him when he was trying to do his homework, and in her place stood a woman who had blossomed into one of the most amazing people he had the pleasure to know.
“Gigi, you look resplendent.” He hugged her, taking care not to muss her dress or makeup. “How are you feeling?”
“Nervous,” she answered honestly. “Were you? When you married Lizzie I mean.”
“I was. Not in an anxious way though, it was anticipatory. I could not wait for us to begin our lives together.”
“That’s how I feel.” She glanced out the window. “Although I’m also slightly worried I’ll trip over my dress and fall on my face in front of all those people.”
“You won’t. But even if you did, I wouldn’t let you fall.” He joined her at the window. “Mom would be happy, seeing her roses used for such a joyous occasion.”
“She would, wouldn’t she?” Gigi took a shaky breath. “I almost killed them, you know. The roses? I neglected them and they nearly died, but they were resilient and they came back. Just like you did.” Gigi blinked back tears. “I’m glad you came back. I’m glad you’re here, William.”
“I’m glad too.” A heavy silence fell between them as they both thought about how close he had come to missing this event. William would forever be grateful that the timing of his return had been as fortuitous as it had. He would have understood, had Gigi married without him present, but he was glad for the opportunity to be there.
William cleared his throat. “Well, are you ready?”
Gigi smiled. “I am.”
William held out his arm to her, and as she looped hers through it, she asked, “Where’s your cane? Don’t you need it?”
“I’m okay for short periods of time,” he told her. “But it’s waiting at the other end of the aisle in case I need it later.”
“Absolutely.” He was determined to walk his sister down the aisle without any assistance.
Gigi stood the balls of her feet and kissed his cheek. “Alright, big brother. Let’s do this.”
Lizzie bent down to make sure that Liam was holding the pillow with the rings on it securely. “You remember what to do?” she whispered.
He nodded solemnly. Lizzie heard the music start. “Okay, Liam, off you go.” He started to walk and Lizzie held her breath, hoping he’d remember to keep walking all the way to the front without stopping. She knew it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he didn’t, but she wanted this day to be perfect for Gigi.
Liam paused about half way up the aisle to look back at her, but when she smiled at him encouragingly, he kept going and was soon standing next to Matthew at the front. Lizzie exhaled and prepared for her own walk up the aisle. Once she was done, it would be Gigi’s turn.
As Lizzie took her place in front of the rose bushes, the first thing she saw was William, standing tall, his back rigid, his arm looped through his sister’s. His eyes found hers and remained locked in place as he and Gigi began their own walk up the aisle.
William’s pulse quickened as he guided Gigi down the aisle. Lizzie was always beautiful to him, but seeing her standing at the front of the aisle, a bright smile on her face, made him think back to their wedding day and how full of love and hope they had both been for their future. Things hadn’t quite gone the way either of them had hoped, and for a while they had lost their future, but they had it back now and he would never take that for granted.
They stopped at the end of the aisle and William shifted his focus to his sister. He kissed her cheek. “I love you, Gigi.”
“Thanks, big brother.” She kissed his cheek back, then turned to Matthew, her smile so bright it lit up the whole garden.
The reception that followed the ceremony in the rose garden was a beautiful and understated affair that reflected Gigi and Matthew well. Lizzie had doubted her mother’s ability to pull off something appropriate in the short amount of time offered by Gigi’s engagement, but she was impressed.
She and William had spent most of the reception just trying to keep up with Liam, who had found great delight in weaving in and out of the crowd and hiding under tables. Ella, Charlie, and Spencer joined in on the fun so Jane, Bing, Fitz, Brandon, William, and Lizzie ended up taking turns watching the children, while allowing the others to visit.
William had already had a chance to catch up with both Bing and Fitz earlier in the week, but he enjoyed the opportunity to chat with them some more and to see them both interact with their children. He couldn’t help but feel a stab of jealousy however, whenever their kids came up to talk to them or called them “Dad”. He hoped that type of interaction with Liam would happen for him one day soon, but for now he knew that he needed to be content with the few quiet moments he’d already had.
The dancing started after dinner and Lizzie leaned against William as they sat watching Gigi and Matthew float across the dance floor to The Vow by Derek Webb. The lyrics fit them perfectly, and the way that Gigi and Matthew looked at each other while they danced reminded Lizzie of herself and William.
As other couples started to join the married couple, William held out his hand to his wife. “May I have this dance?”
Lizzie looked behind her to confirm that Liam was still asleep on his grandmother’s lap before accepting the hand he offered. “I would be honored.”
William held her tight against him, his head resting against hers as they moved slowly in time with the music. His leg was throbbing dully but he ignored it. It was the first time they had danced since his return, and it was a relief to be able to hold her in his arms like this again. He had dreamed of this moment, had spent countless hours alone in his cell recounting past moments with Lizzie, and none of the memories compared to the real thing.
Lizzie was real. She was tangible. She was here.
To be continued…
Final chapter TOMORROW! :D
Chapter 6: Part 3b: All About Your Heart
I am utterly overwhelmed by the response to this story. Thank you all so much for bearing with me through what I know has been a very emotional journey. Here, at last, is what I will hope you will find to be a satisfying conclusion to this journey. I appreciate each and every one of you who has read this. The fact that so many of you have had such a strong emotional response to the words I have laid out on the page is a very high compliment indeed and I am deeply touched an humbled by it.
Please be sure to check out the end notes for my full acknowledgements of the other people who helped bring you this story and its playlists.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
All About Your Heart
I have loved you all along
And I forgive you
For being away for far too long
So keep breathing
'Cause I'm not leaving you anymore
Hold on to me and, never let me go
'Cause I'm not leaving you anymore
- ‘Far Away’, Nickelback
In the weeks following Gigi and Matthew’s wedding, William and Lizzie slowly started to fall into a new routine. Liam got them up early in the morning and they’d all have breakfast together before Lizzie went off to work, and Liam to daycare. William wasn’t quite ready to get back to work yet himself, and after meeting with the orthopedic specialist, he started physical therapy to help rebuild the strength in his leg. The specialist had determined that the bone in William’s leg had not healed properly since it had never been casted. Without surgery, the leg would always look misshapen, but the doctor believed they could correct most of the pain and some of the limping without it, so they were going to try that before pursuing any surgery that would prevent William from using his leg for several months.
With Lizzie and Liam gone during the day, William found himself feeling adrift and lost. He knew he wasn’t ready to return to Pemberley, but at the same time, he didn’t know what else to do with himself. He was half tempted to ask Lizzie to stay home for another week or to leave Liam with him, but he knew that neither option was a solution. Instead, he threw himself into his physical therapy, pushing himself to do the required exercises as often as his leg would allow him to. Maybe if he worked hard enough, he would feel whole again.
When he wasn’t at physical therapy or doing his exercises, he threw himself into whatever small tasks he could find around the house. By the end of Lizzie’s first week back at work, Liam’s room, their bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, and both bathrooms were spotless. William had found that, as long as he kept moving, as long as he kept himself busy, he couldn’t think. Thinking was bad. Thinking when he was alone in the apartment sent him right back to that tiny cell, to the loneliness and the pain and missing Lizzie so much it hurt to breathe. He didn’t want to go back there, so that meant everything in sight was clean.
In the evenings, when Lizzie and Liam were home, William focused on both of them, asking about Lizzie’s day and continuing to make every effort to connect to his son.
Where Liam was concerned, they were starting to make progress. Liam no longer wailed when William tried to help him with things, and he had even asked William to play with him on more than one occasion. Every time Liam reached out to him voluntarily, William felt like a tiny piece of his heart was being returned.
Things with Liam were going so well that one night, while Lizzie was tidying up from dinner, William decided to try putting Liam to bed.
He was getting better at wrestling his son in order to change him and he managed to get Liam into his pyjamas without incident.
“What book should we read, Liam?”
Liam looked at him, his bottom lip quivering slightly. “No book. Wanna pway trains!”
“No Liam, it’s time for your story. We can play trains tomorrow.” William held up a book about colors. “How about this one?”
Liam shook his head vigorously. “Nonononononono.”
“Okay, no colors. What about this book about the duckies?”
“No. No book.” Liam slapped the book out of William’s hand and it went flying across the room, landing against the wall with a loud thud.
William tried to recall what he’d seen Lizzie do when Liam was cranky like this. She usually just ignored Liam’s protests, so he decided to try the same thing. He selected a book about trains that he knew Liam liked, picked up his son, and started to sit in the chair. Immediately, Liam started to kick his legs and twist his body.
“NO BOOK. NO. WANT DOWN.”
William ignored him and opened the book. “Big trains, small trains, old trains and new, rattling and whistling — choo, choo, choo!”
“NOOOOOOO!” Liam wailed, trying to push the book away and climb off of his lap.
William tried again to read, but before he could finish the next sentence, Lizzie swooped in and pulled Liam into her arms, comforting him. “What’s going on in here?”
“I was trying to read to him and put him to bed, but he wanted to play and —“
“Okay,” Lizzie said, rocking slightly as she patted Liam’s back. “Shhhhh, sweetheart, it’s time for bed.”
“No,” Liam sniffled. “Pway.” His voice was already calmer and he laid his head on his mother’s shoulder.
“I’ve got this,” Lizzie told William, continuing to sway back and forth.
William stood up, watching helplessly as Lizzie calmed their son and got him to agree to a story. She sat in the chair and settled Liam on her lap but as soon as he saw William, he started the cry again.
Lizzie sighed. She was exhausted and Liam was overtired and she just needed him to go to sleep. “I’m sorry, William, you’re distracting him. I’ll get him to sleep.”
William wanted to protest. He’d never have a chance to be a proper father to Liam if Lizzie kept swooping in to rescue him all the time, but he knew that now wasn’t the time. Liam needed to go to bed and William needed to back off and let Lizzie do it. He limped from the room, wordlessly wondering how it was that he could be so close to his wife and son, and yet feel so separate from them.
They decided to have a very small celebration for Liam’s third birthday, inviting only Gigi, Matthew, Fitz, Brandon, and Spencer. The party ended when Liam, exhausted from a combination of sugar crash and lack of nap, passed out on the sofa. Lizzie carried him to his room to put him down properly, while William saw their guests out.
“Thanks for inviting us, man.” Fitz grinned. “This was fun.”
“It was indeed,” William agreed. He enjoyed spending time with Fitz again.
“Daddy, I’m bored now!” Spencer yanked on her father’s arm. “Let’s go!”
“Okay, okay. I’m coming.” Fitz waved and let his daughter drag him out the door.
“You’re too slow, Daddy, go faster.” William heard Spencer say as they disappeared down the corridor.
“So you’re coming back to Pemberley on Monday?” Matthew asked William as he and Gigi prepared to go as well. “Everyone is looking forward to seeing you again.”
William nodded. “I think so. I’m ready to start getting back up to speed.” He wasn’t entirely sure that was true, but what he was certain of was that he couldn’t remain alone in the apartment any longer. It was suffocating and it was screwing with his mind. He’d been having nightmares about Guatemala periodically ever since he’d returned, but they’d worsened in the two weeks since Lizzie had gone back to work, and he hoped that having work to keep him busy would help. Besides, he’d missed close to four years, it was going to take a while for him to catch up.
“Good. I’m looking forward to filling you in. We have lots to talk about.” Matthew helped Gigi get her coat on. “We’ll see you both on Monday.”
William hugged his sister. “Thanks for coming.” It was the first time they’d seen her since she’d returned from her honeymoon, and he couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen her so purely happy.
“Of course.” She kissed his cheek. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
Later that afternoon, when Liam had awoken from his nap, Lizzie slid her hand into his. “I have something for you.”
Lizzie smiled. “Well, we do.” She turned to their son, who was playing happily with a new floor puzzle. “Liam, do you want to give Daddy his present now.”
Liam abandoned his puzzle immediately. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
She handed Liam the wrapped gift that she’d hidden earlier.
His little brow furrowed. “What is it?”
“It’s for Daddy.” Lizzie prodded him forward. “Can you give it to him?”
Liam thrust it into William’s lap and then climbed up onto the couch beside him.
“Open it now,” he ordered. “Wanna see.”
William did as he was told and pulled the paper off to reveal a photo album.
“It’s filled with pictures from of Liam from birth until a few months ago. I thought you’d like to look at it together.” Lizzie settled herself next to them so that Liam was between them.
All William could do was offer her a watery smile.
Growing impatient, Liam pulled the album from William’s hands and opened it.
“Who dat, Mama?” he pointed to a picture of an infant wrapped in a green blanket.
“That’s you, Liam. The day that you were born.” She met William’s gaze, then quickly looked away. She remembered that day so vividly, and even though she knew that his absence hadn’t been on purpose, the fact that he hadn’t been there still stung. This was harder than she’d thought it would be, but she pushed on.
Liam flipped to another page, managing to skip several in the process. “CAKE!” he said happily, clenching his fists and shaking with excitement.
“It looks like there’s more cake on him than on the table.” William observed.
Lizzie laughed. “Yes, that was the year Liam decided to crawl into his birthday cake. Mom was devastated.”
William helped Liam turn to the next page.
“Dat’s me!” Liam said, pointing at a more recent picture. “My train! Mama, dat’s my train!”
“It is your train. Grandpa gave it to you on your birthday last year.”
Liam pushed the photo album towards William and climbed down off the couch. He raced over to one of the toy buckets and pulled out his red train. “Here it is!” He started to push it on the wooden tracks he’d received from Gigi earlier that day, making little swishing train noises, followed periodically by, “Choo, choo!”
William flipped through a few more pages in the album, but every image made his chest tighten further as he absorbed just how much he’d missed. He knew Lizzie was trying to include him in those moments by sharing the photographs with him, but instead it was making him feel more distant. This was just one more thing he didn’t share with them. One more thing he had missed out on. One more way he’d let them both down.
He didn’t want Lizzie to see how shaken he was, so he forced a smile. “Thank you. This was thoughtful.” He handed her the album. “I have a headache, do you mind if I go lie down for a bit?”
“No, that’s fine.” She watched him go, noticing that his limp was worse than usual. She felt uneasy; her husband was obviously not okay and she had no idea how to fix it.
Monday morning, William and Lizzie left for work together for the first time. Since William’s doctor had advised against driving until his leg was stronger, Lizzie drove them. Liam sat in his carseat, singing something softly.
“What are you singing, Liam?” William asked, turn around to look at his son.
“Twinkle Star.” Liam raised his hands above his head. “Twinkle, twinkle, liddle star, how I wonder what you are,”
William joined in on the next part and Liam stopped singing, his eyes widening. “You know it? Mama, he knows it!”
After Lizzie parked, she turned to William. “Do you want to go straight up? Or would you like to come drop Liam off?”
“I’ll come with you. Matthew won’t even be expecting me yet.”
William had been to the Pemberley Child Care Center before, but never as a parent, and he was amazed by how busy it was. Liam walked between them, one hand holding Lizzie’s and the other in William’s, but as soon as they entered the room, Liam let go and ran over to a corner where several other children were already playing with cars. Liam took something from a bucket, that laid on the carpet and quickly joined in. William had been shy, even as a little boy, so he was amazed now to see his son fitting in so easily.
Lizzie showed him where they had to sign Liam in and out, then made a point to say goodbye to Liam before they left.
Soon, William found himself outside the office that had once been his. Or was it still his? He wasn’t really sure anymore. He leaned more heavily on his cane. Should he knock? Just walk in? He decided to knock.
“William,” Matthew said warmly. “Come in.”
The day passed in a blur of unfamiliar names, updates on projects he’d never heard of, and countless other details that made his head spin. He left at the end of the day with a stack of files to review and a headache.
It was odd, being back in the place that he had felt at home in for so many years and feeling like he no longer fit. Just like at home, Pemberley had moved forward in his absence, and while that was great and necessary for the company, it left him wondering where he fit. It wasn’t like he could just walk in tomorrow after reading half a dozen files and take over as CEO again. There was so much more he needed to know, so much more he needed to adjust to, before he’d be ready for that step. And where would that leave Matthew? It was obvious that the younger man had done an excellent job running Pemberley, and it seemed unfair to exile him from his position simply because the company’s long lost heir had returned.
William sighed. It was only his first day back, the details would be sorted out later. Right now, all he wanted to do was get his wife and son and go home.
One morning in late April, they woke up to the sound of hysterical crying and retching. Lizzie bolted from the room, finding her son standing up in his crib, his pajamas covered in vomit and tears streaming down his face.
“Maaaama!” He cried, reaching for her. “Tummy owie.”
William, who had followed Lizzie, stood in the doorway, making sure to distribute most of his weight to his good leg. “Can I help?”
Lizzie shook her head as she stripped her son and gathered him into her arms. His small body was shaking with hiccuping sobs and she started to rock him, whispering comforting words into his ear.
William watched helplessly from the doorway as his son’s tears suddenly increased and he retched again, covering Lizzie.
“Oh, baby, it’s okay,” Lizzie said to him as he cried harder.
William grabbed a cloth from the top of Liam’s dresser and carefully wiped his son’s face, before trying to dab at the sick that had splashed on Lizzie’s hair.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said irritably, moving away and continuing to rock. “We’re both going to need showers anyway.”
“Right.” William dropped his hand and wondered what else he could do to help. “Will he be okay?”
“Liam will be fine. It’s probably just a tummy bug. He’s had them before.” She smoothed her son’s hair. His tears were slowing down. She looked up at her husband. “Go get ready for work. You don’t want to be late.”
“What about you? Don’t you have that big meeting today?”
Lizzie winced and swore internally. She was supposed to meet with one of their biggest clients that morning and she couldn’t really miss it. “Oh crap, I do.”
William hesitated. “Maybe I could stay home with Liam?”
“No, no, that’s not necessary,” Lizzie said quickly. He still had so much to catch up on, he couldn’t afford to miss a day of work. Besides, although Liam had warmed up to him, they still weren’t 100% comfortable around each other yet and Liam could be challenging at the best of times, let alone when he was sick. William didn’t need to deal with that kind of stress right now.
“It’s okay, William. I’ll just reschedule the meeting, it’ll be fine.” She sighed tiredly. “You should go to work. Matthew is expecting you.”
William gazed sadly at his son, who was sniffling miserably. He hated feeling helpless, especially when the people he loved were suffering. He wished Lizzie would trust him more with Liam, but now wasn’t the time to bring that up so instead, he slipped wordlessly from the room.
“Sorry we’re late,” Gigi told her brother and Lizzie as she and Matthew slid into the seats across from them. “We were stuck in traffic.”
Lizzie raised an eyebrow. Judging from the flush of Gigi’s cheeks and state of Matthew’s hair, something more than traffic had held them up. She glanced at William, remembering a time when that had been them, newly married and unable to keep their hands off each other. They hadn’t really had a chance to be intimate since his return though. Feeling a sudden urge to touch him, she slid her hand into his beneath the table.
“It’s okay,” William said, entwining his fingers with Lizzie’s.
“Have you ordered yet?” Matthew asked.
A small shiver ran up William’s arm as Lizzie started to stroke the side of his hand with her thumb. He swallowed. “Not yet,” he answered.
“This place has the best bruchetta.” Gigi opened her menu. “I highly recommend it.”
As Gigi and Matthew started to discuss their meal preferences, William snuck a glance at Lizzie. She had leaned over to pick up a toy that Liam had thrown onto the floor, and her hand remained fixed in his. Her foot rested against the side of his leg as she grappled for the toy, and he found himself suddenly feeling warm.
As Lizzie handed the toy back to her son and sat up, their gazes met, and Lizzie felt as though all the air had been sucked out of her lungs. Keeping her foot against William’s, she wordlessly shifted closer to him and picked up her menu.
After they ordered (a lengthy process on account of Liam interrupting every few seconds with a squeal of discontent, until Lizzie lifted him out of the highchair and sat him on her lap), Lizzie pushed her water glass out of her son’s reach and said to Matthew, “So, what’s it like working with this guy all day?”
Matthew chuckled. “It’s been pretty great actually. He’s definitely easier to work with than his sister.”
“Hey!” Gigi swatted at Matthew’s shoulder, but he caught her hand and kissed it.
“It’s the truth. I love you but you are ornery when you want to be.”
“Look, when you barge into someone’s office unannounced, you can hardly expect them to be civil.”
William watched his sister and her husband banter back and forth. As was the norm for him these days, he had no idea what they were talking about. Matthew had been right, they worked well together, but what Matthew didn’t realize was that most of the time, William felt completely out of his depth at work. There was so much he didn’t know. It wasn’t just about learning all their new projects, those he could handle, it was everything else. It seemed like every time he thought he was adjusting to being back, someone would mention an old project or a new technology that was completely unfamiliar to him, and he felt completely out of the loop. He’d only been back at work for a month though, he just needed to give it more time and things would start making sense again. At least he hoped they would.
“Ahh!” Lizzie’s yelp put an end to Gigi and Matthew’s banter as they all turned to look at her. While all the adults had been distracted, Liam had managed to catch hold of Lizzie’s water glass and topple it onto her lap.
“Ooooops!” Liam said, dropping the empty cup on the floor. He started to twist off his mother’s lap. “I get it!”
“I’ve got him.” Gigi scooped up her nephew and settled him back into the highchair.
“No, Auntie E-e! Want down!” He leaned over, trying to squirm out of the highchair, while Gigi struggled with the straps. “FIX IT!” he looked at her with watery eyes. “Pwease?”
“It’s okay, Liam. Mama’s got it. Here, want something to eat?” Gigi took a piece of bread from the table, tore it in half, and offered him both pieces. Liam stopped struggling and reached for the bread.
Lizzie used her napkin to try and dry her dress. Picking up his own napkin, William leaned over to help, managing to accidentally brush against her chest in the process. They both froze for a second, eyes locked as a burst of heat passed between them. Blood rushed through Lizzie’s ears and she felt like she could barely breathe. If they hadn’t been in public, she would have kissed him. Instead, she forced herself to look away. She needed to regain her composure.
William settled back into his own chair, his heart beating erratically. Across from him, Gigi and Matthew were having a whispered discussion that made him feel like he was intruding, so he focused instead on his son, who was now squishing his bread with the sippy cup they had brought for him.
The arrival of their food broke the awkward silence. Once Liam was settled with his macaroni (which he proceeded to eat with his fingers, despite the spoon he held grasped in one hand) and everyone had eaten a bit, Gigi glanced nervously at Matthew, who nodded and gave her an encouraging smile.
Gigi took a deep breath. She had a whole speech planned, but when she opened her mouth to recite it, words failed her and instead she simply blurted, “So…I’m pregnant.”
William froze, his fork halfway to his mouth. His sister was what? He could not seem to wrap his mind around the words.
Beside him, Lizzie set her own fork down and grinned at her sister-in-law. “Congratulations, Gigi. When are you due?”
“In December,” Matthew answered, reaching out to grasp Gigi’s hand as she settled back into her chair.
Gigi looked at her husband fondly. “December 14th, to be more precise.”
Recovering from the shock, William stood and moved around the table so he could hug his sister. “You’re going to be a great mother, Gigi.”
She hugged him back. “Thank you, William.”
As he sat down again, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy at the fact that his sister would have a chance to experience parenthood from the beginning. She wouldn’t have to come in part way through and feel like a stranger in her own family. He looked at Liam, who was happily shoving macaroni in his mouth, and immediately tried to quash his envy. Yes, Gigi was fortunate, but so was he. He had survived impossible circumstances and returned to his family. He had a wife and son whom he loved dearly. Things would get easier, he just needed to give it time.
After Lizzie put Liam to bed that night, she found William sitting on their bed, his reading glasses sliding down his nose, as he read through some work papers. She stayed in the doorway for a while, admiring him and thinking back to the heat between them at dinner. It had been almost four years since they’d last been intimate, and her body ached for him to touch her the way he used to - to connect with him in that way again. She’d been hesitant to venture too far down that road in the two months since he’d come back, but his leg was getting better thanks to the physical therapy, and he was settling in. Plus, the way he’d looked at her during dinner... Lizzie shivered. Maybe it was time.
William sensed her gaze and he looked up, his heart starting to beat more rapidly at the intensity of it. God, she looked beautiful standing there with her hair slightly mussed and her dress rumpled. All through dinner, he had wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her senselessly. Every bump of hands or touch of his leg against hers had only heightened that desire, and it returned to him now in full force.
“Hi,” he said, his voice breathy. He set the file folder on the bedside table and stood up, pulling off his glasses.
“No, keep them on.” Lizzie took them from him and gently slid them back over his ears. “They make you look sexy.”
William raised an eyebrow. “Sexy, huh?”
“Very sexy.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, closing the distance between them. Every nerve ending was on alert as she became hyper aware of him. She inhaled, relishing in the comfort of his familiar musky scent, and watching in fascination as his Adam’s apple bobbed.
William dipped his head, brushing his lips against hers, tentative at first. They had kissed regularly since his return, but this felt different. Weighted. Important. With each new kiss, he let his lips linger a little longer and Lizzie followed his lead, gradually deepening the kiss.
There was urgency in their actions, but hesitancy as well, and when William started to fumble with the zipper on the back of her dress, Lizzie stopped him. “Are you sure?”
At William’s nod, wordlessly, nervously, Lizzie turned, pulling her hair off her neck so he could see what he was doing. She felt cool air rush across her skin as he unzipped her, almost immediately replaced by the press of his lips against her back. Lizzie inhaled sharply, realizing just how much she had missed this. She fought the urge to turn around and jump him. This wasn’t something they should rush.
William took his time, letting his fingers and lips reacquaint themselves with the contours of her back.
Lizzie closed her eyes, drinking in every sensation, every tingle, every caress. She had missed this. She had missed him. As he kissed a trail towards her hips and started to pull the rest of her dress aside, Lizzie suddenly froze. He would see her stretch marks, would be able to see how much her body had changed. It’s fine, she reminded herself, It’s just William, he’s my husband, we’ve done this a thousand times before. But the fact was, this was different. So much had changed since the last time they’d done this. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe this was too soon.
William felt Lizzie’s muscles stiffen beneath his touch as he neared her hips. There were tiny white marks on her skin that were new and he wanted to reach out to caress them, but Lizzie’s sudden tension caused him to hesitate. Instead, he gently turned her around. “You okay?”
Lizzie swallowed. “Fine.”
He ran a thumb along her cheekbone. “Are you sure?”
She responded by lunging forward, crushing her mouth to his so abruptly that their teeth banged together. She eased back a bit, letting her tongue slip between his lips. William gave himself over to the kiss, letting the awkward tension slide away, though it remained a small nagging thought in the back of his mind.
Lizzie let her hands start to roam over the fabric of his shirt. His back felt different, less muscular, and she could feel his ribs. He had lost so much weight in the time they’d been separated, and she had to fight back a sob at the reminder of the horrors he’d been through. She distracted herself from such dark thoughts by intensifying the kiss and pressing her hips against his.
She started to unclasp his pants, and William suddenly felt inexplicably vulnerable and self conscious. His leg had improved, but it was still ugly and scarred, and as for other things, well, it had been a long time. He willed himself to push through, but before he could, a loud cry from the other room caused them both to recoil.
“I better go settle him.” Lizzie’s chest was heaving as she reached around to pull her dress back up. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She cast him an apologetic look and slipped from the room before William could respond. As soon as she was out of sight, she leaned against the wall and took a moment to compose herself. The way that William had tensed up when she’d gone to unbutton his pants had shaken her and she worried about what it might mean. Liam screamed again so she shelved the thought for later and went to comfort him.
William sank onto the bed and took a deep breath. So many thoughts and emotions were swirling through his brain that it was a bit overwhelming. The fact was, he wasn’t the man he had been when they’d last done this. His leg was scarred and disfigured, and the rest of his body had changed. What if he was no longer able to meet her expectations? The last thing he wanted to do was let Lizzie down.
He laid back, suddenly feeling exhausted.
When Lizzie returned a few minutes later, she found him asleep. Feeling a strange mixture of regret and relief, she pulled the covers up over him and kissed the top of his forehead. There would be other nights.
Lizzie and William were tidying up the apartment together one weekend in May, when William came across a file folder that had slipped behind the entertainment center. Balancing his weight on his uninjured leg and his cane, he bent down to pick it up.
“I wonder what this is doing here?” he said, brushing off the dust and examining it. It was unmarked and it looked different than the folders they used at Pemberley.
Lizzie came over to look at it, her heart pounding as she realized it was the folder Catherine had left when she’d wanted Lizzie to have William declared dead. She didn’t want him to open it. She wasn’t ready for him to know that she’d given up on him. She wasn’t ready to see the hurt and disappointment she was certain would show in his eyes. “Please don’t open it, William.”
“Why not?” He frowned. “It’s just an ordinary folder.”
“It’s irrelevant now.” That was true. She had never signed the papers, so it wasn’t like they had any real world repercussions.
William studied her. He could tell that something about the unmarked folder made her anxious. He could open it and find out why, or he could respect her wishes. He chose the latter and handed her the folder. “Okay.”
She offered him a shaky smile. “Thank you.”
William woke up in a cold sweat. His breathing was heavy and blood was rushing through his ears. He had been back there, in that small dark room, with no hope of escape. The nightmare had been more vivid than usual and even now, as he sat up in his own bed, he could still smell the rancid dirt floor; he could hear shouts of vapid Spanish, he could feel the constant ache of his leg that had plagued him for years.
Beside him, Lizzie stirred. His eyes were wild and panicked. She sat up. “William, are you okay?”
“Did you have another nightmare?” Lizzie wanted to cry. He’d been having them nearly every night lately and she was growing more and more concerned.
He took a deep breath. “It was nothing. I’m okay. Go back to sleep.”
“William,” she shifted closer to him. “I’m right here, talk to me. Maybe it will help.”
The last thing he wanted to do was burden her with his problems. He needed to figure out how to solve them on his own. “I think I’m going to have a shower,” William told her, climbing out of bed. The walls of the room felt like they were closing in on him and he couldn’t let them win. He bent down to kiss the top of her head. “Go back to sleep, Lizzie.”
As Lizzie watched him limp to the bathroom, she felt her chest tighten. He was slowly slipping away from her and she had no idea how to stop him.
“More please, Mama!” Lizzie gave Liam a few more apple slices and glanced at the clock again. 6:34. She took a deep breath. It was fine. William was only half an hour later than usual; he probably just got stuck in traffic. Still, as the clock ticked upward towards 7 and he still wasn’t home, her heart started to race.
What if something had happened? What if he was in an accident? What if — Lizzie sank onto the couch, a few feet away from where Liam was playing, and took several shallow breaths as panic started to take over. Not again. She couldn’t do this again. Their anniversary was in a few days. This couldn’t be happening.
Bile rose in her throat. No. She told herself. He’s fine. He has to be. She needed to be certain. With a shaky hand, she grabbed her phone and dialed William. No answer. Shaking even more now, she called Gigi. Matthew was supposed to be driving William home today, maybe she knew where they were.
“Lizzie, what’s wrong?” Gigi said, hearing the panic in her sister-in-law’s voice.
“Have you heard from Matthew?”
“No. But he and William had a meeting at 6:30 tonight so I’m not expecting him for another half hour. Why?”
“It’s not important.” Relief flowed through her. A meeting. That’s all. Okay. He was fine. Fine. “Thanks Gigi,” Lizzie said evenly, her heart still thudding manically in her chest. “That’s what I needed to know.”
“Lizzie, are you okay?”
“I am now.”
“You don’t sound okay.”
Lizzie fought to regain her composure. She hadn’t meant to scare Gigi. “I just had a moment. I’m fine now.”
“Lizzie, have you thought about talking to someone? It might help.”
“Gigi, I’m fine. I just have to get used to normal things like late meetings again.”
“If you change your mind, let me know. I can give you the number of the person I’ve been going to. It helps. I think it would be good for you. William too.”
“We’re fine, Gigi. Although…” Lizzie looked at Liam. What she and William really needed was some uninterrupted alone time. They had tried to be intimate again several times in the past month without much success, and she’d been thinking some time away might do them both some good. Especially with their anniversary coming on Saturday. “…Would you and Matthew be willing to take Liam for the weekend?”
“I’ll double check with Matthew, but I don’t think that will be a problem.”
“Great, thank you.” Lizzie heard William’s key in the lock. “Oh, William’s home, I’ll talk to you later. Let me know if this weekend won’t work.”
“Okay, I will.”
Lizzie tossed her phone aside and got up in time to propel herself into William’s arms as soon as he walked in the door.
“Oof.” He hugged her back. “Not that I’m complaining, but to what do I owe that greeting?”
“No reason.” Lizzie kissed him quickly, hoping he wouldn’t be able to see through to the real reason. She didn’t need to burden him with her anxieties. He was home. That’s what mattered. “I’m just happy to see you.”
William studied her face. There was something she wasn’t saying but she obviously didn’t want to talk about it. He could understand that. His leg was aching and he’d had another day at work where everything just felt off. The board was starting to make noises about picking a date to make the official CEO change over so that Matthew could be reassigned to another department, but William still felt so out of place that he had no idea when he’d be ready. He didn’t want to worry Lizzie with such thoughts though. She had enough on her plate and this was something he needed to figure out for himself.
“I was wondering,” Lizzie said to him a little while later while they were eating dinner. “What do you think about going away for our anniversary this weekend? I was thinking maybe we could go back to Napa?”
“What about Liam though?” He looked over at their son, who was happily mashing what remained of his dinner into a pulp.
“Gigi said she and Matthew can take him for the weekend.”
“Okay.” William grinned. That was a great idea. Some time alone would be good for them. Besides, after missing three anniversaries, he had a lot to make up for. He vowed to make this one extra special. “Napa sounds great, we had a great time there last time.”
“We really did.” Lizzie blushed, remembering their drunken vineyard kisses. Perhaps they’d be able to repeat them.
Lizzie had managed to rent them the same cottage they’d rented for their second anniversary. They both took Friday afternoon off work and, after saying goodbye to Liam, they drove up the coast.
It was strange for William, to be a passenger during a long drive - it had always been William who drove them on long trips - but though his leg was no longer inflamed and was getting stronger, the doctor wanted him to wait a bit longer before he started driving again. It was just one more frustration in a long list of things he had no control over.
Still, the benefit of being a passenger was that he could relish in the sight of familiar surroundings. It was the first time he’d left the city since returning from Guatemala, and he found comfort in watching the Northern California hills and vineyards as they passed by. This was home. This was was familiar. This was what he had dreamed of returning to for almost four years. More important though was the woman beside him. He snuck in as many glances at her as he could reasonably get away with without distracting her as she drove, and he was enamoured by every detail. The way her hair curved over her shoulder on one side, the way the creases of her eyes turned upwards as she smiled, the way the sun reflected off her skin. He loved her so completely, and he was nervously excited for their time away.
The cottage looked identical to how it had looked four years earlier and William found that fact oddly comforting. So many things had changed in the time that he’d been gone, that it was nice to find something that hadn’t progressed to the point that it left him in its dust.
Once they settled into the cottage, they went in to town, where they spent the afternoon walking along the Napa River and exploring shops, stopping periodically to give William’s leg a rest. They found a restaurant to share a romantic dinner at and, by the time they returned to the cottage, they could barely keep their hands off each other.
They tumbled onto the bed, both in varied states of disarray as they fumbled with buttons and clasps. William managed to extract Lizzie’s shirt and he started to trail little kisses down her neck, across her chest, between her breasts. He moved downward, his fingers feathering along her sides, causing her breath to catch and her pulse to quicken.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as he neared her abdomen. The worst of her stretch marks were there and, until now, they’d always stopped before getting to this point. He traced a finger gently over the line of one of the marks and she inhaled sharply. Their eyes met, and the emotion she saw reflected back at her caused her stomach to flutter for an entirely different reason.
William bent to kiss the mark, trailing his tongue along it so delicately, so tenderly, that Lizzie was suddenly overcome with a thousand different emotions. Those marks were a reminder of what he had missed out on, and yet he was treating them with a level of love and sensitivity that Lizzie could never have anticipated. All at once, tears sprang to her eyes. She didn’t deserve this kind of attention. Not after nearly giving up on him.
She pulled away, unable to handle the assault on her emotions any longer. Pain and confusion flashed in his eyes as she sat up, her back to him. She wrapped her arms across her chest. She didn’t know what to say, how to explain.
William felt his chest tighten as Lizzie withdrew from him. What had he done wrong? Was it the stretch marks? Did she know the turmoil they caused him? He knew they were the result of her pregnancy with Liam, of a time where he should have been there with her and he wasn’t. He had thought that by showing his appreciation for them, it would help them both come to terms with that loss, but instead he had managed to drive her further away. He didn’t know what to do. He had been trying so hard to get back to normal, to move past what had happened to them, but lately it felt like everything he did was wrong.
“Lizzie?” he asked now, trying a direct approach. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry.” She turned back to him, a forced smile plastered to her lips. “I just needed a moment. I’m fine, we can continue.”
She leaned in to kiss him, but he stopped her, his hands cupping both sides of her face. Tears were drying against her cheeks. “You were crying, you’re obviously not fine.”
“I’m just emotional, it’s nothing.” Lizzie swallowed. She’d forgotten how easily he could see through her. It made her feel vulnerable and exposed.
William dropped his hands and stared down at the bed. “You don’t trust me.”
“What?” Lizzie gaped at him. “Of course I trust you, William.”
He looked up, and the pain she saw as their eyes locked made her want to curl into a ball and cry. “Then why do you always shut me out of your thoughts? We always used to share everything; there were no secrets between us. And now you always just say you’re fine and expect me to accept that. You’re not fine, Lizzie. I can tell.”
Is that what he thought? Lizzie’s heart ached. That wasn’t it at all. She opened her mouth to explain, but he continued.
“To make matters worse, I know you don’t trust me with Liam.”
Lizzie felt like she’d been slapped. “What? That’s not true. William, Liam is your son.”
“I am aware. And yet you hardly ever leave me alone with him. You seldom let me do anything for him. It’s been more than three months now and I haven’t even put him to bed once. I feel like I’m just a visitor passing through. It’s like you don’t trust me to be his father. I know I wasn’t there at first, Lizzie, but I’m here now, and I’m trying. I’m trying so hard, but how can Liam learn to trust me with him if you won’t?”
The room was spinning. How had they gone from kissing to this? Lizzie had to take a deep breath to keep from crying. Was William right though? Had she somehow stopped trusting him without realizing it? “I’m so sorry, William, I didn’t realize you felt that way. I… I guess I’m just so used to doing everything myself. I’ve been a single parent for three years, I guess I don’t know anything else.”
The words ‘single parent’ rang in his head. He’d done that. It was his fault she’d had to raise their son that way. “Why don’t we ever talk about that?”
“About what you went through while I was gone? It’s obvious you were hurting, and it kills me that you were - that I’m the cause of that - but you refuse to let me see that. How can I fix it if you won’t let me in? How can I help you when you won’t even admit that you’re hurting?”
Lizzie was crying openly now. “I haven’t wanted to talk about it because I don’t want to hurt you, William. I’m just trying to move forward. What good is dwelling on the past going to do? It’s done, we can’t change it. Besides, it’s not like you’ve been very forthcoming yourself. You still won’t even tell me what happened to you while you were gone. I only know bits and pieces from what they told me at the embassy. I have to witness you having nightmare after nightmare, and I have no way to help you because I don’t know what you went through.”
“I haven’t told you because I thought it would hurt you too much to know.”
Lizzie stared at him for a minute, and then she started to laugh through her tears.
William blinked at her, completely bemused. “Why are you laughing?”
“Because we’re idiots, William. We’ve been shutting each other out because we’re so afraid of hurting each other, and we’ve ended up hurting each other more.” Lizzie shook her head. “Idiots.”
William chuckled. When she put it that way, she was right.
“So, what do we do now?” Lizzie asked. “How do we get past this?”
“I honestly don’t know.” William sighed. “Maybe we should talk about these things now.”
“Okay.” Lizzie put her shirt back on and they both propped themselves up with pillows.
An awkward silence fell over them.
“I don’t know how to start,” Lizzie confessed.
“Nor do I.” William looked at her. “It’s a lot.”
“It is.” Lizzie angled her body so she could see him better. “The nightmares. Can you tell me about them?”
William swallowed. “They… they’re… most of the time they’re memories. Of where I was, of what I saw.” He searched for a way to elaborate, and his mind immediately conjured up an image of his cell. Even the smell came back to him. His stomach flopped and he thought he might be sick. “I’m sorry, Lizzie. I don’t know if I can do this.”
Lizzie regarded him carefully. His eyes had a wild frenzied appearance she’d never seen before and he had gone pale. Instantly, she berated herself for trying to get him to talk about it. It was clearly upsetting and traumatizing for him. Oh, god, what have I done?
“It’s okay,” she said quickly, not wanting to upset him further. She wished she knew how to help him. She had hoped that maybe, if he talked about it, she could fix it, but if he couldn’t even say the words, then maybe they needed help. “The other day, Gigi suggested therapy,” she said hesitantly. “Apparently she’s been talking to someone and it’s helped. Maybe we should do that. I think… I think maybe this is bigger than what we can fix on our own.”
William opened his mouth to protest, but when he saw the look of concern and anxiety on Lizzie’s face, he immediately relented. Maybe she was right? He didn’t know, he just knew that he wanted things to get back to normal, and if talking to someone would help them do that, he was willing to try. “I think maybe you’re right.”
“Do you think maybe instead of … this,” she gestured between them, “we could just hold each other tonight? I don’t think I’m ready for the other.”
William was feeling the same way. As much as he loved Lizzie and wanted to be with her again in every way, this conversation had made him realize that what was happening between them wasn’t going to be magically fixed with one night together, or even with a conversation. In fact, he was beginning to think it might make it worse. He opened his arms, and she snuggled against him until they both fell asleep.
In the end, Lizzie and William decided to head back to San Francisco the next day. Neither was much in the mood for celebrating and being together in the small cottage just served as a reminder of their failed attempt at intimacy. They agreed to wait and let it happen naturally, when they both felt ready and a little more at ease with each other, without the pressure of feeling they needed to be intimate again right away.
When they got home, Lizzie called Gigi to let her know they were back.
“They’re going to drop Liam off in a few hours.” She flopped onto the couch next to William. “They want to take him to Pier 39. So we have a few more hours to ourselves.”
“That’s nice of them.”
“I think it’s as much for them as it is for him. They love taking him places but I’m not sure how much time they’ll have to do that once the new baby comes.”
“That’s true.” William took a deep breath, if they were going to try to be more open with each other, this was a good place to start. “Sometimes I feel jealous of Matthew.”
Lizzie shot him a confused glance, thinking the comment a bit odd, but appreciating the fact that he was opening up. “How so?”
“He gets to experience everything: the pregnancy, the doctor’s appointments, the ultrasounds. He’ll get to see his son or daughter at birth.” His eyes were fogging up. “I missed all of that, Lizzie.”
Long-held emotions swirled within Lizzie as she thought back on her pregnancy and how much she had yearned for William to be there, how much she had hoped he would make it back for each milestone. “I missed having you there.”
He covered her hand with his. “I’m sorry, Lizzie. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. I should have been. I will never forgive myself for leaving you alone through that.”
Lizzie felt like her heart was tearing in two. “William, no.” She leaned her forehead against his and looked right into his eyes. “You listen to me, it wasn’t your fault. I know that. It’s horrible and it hurt… hell it still hurts, but it is not your fault.”
“But you and Liam —“
“We made it through.” She was going to gloss it over, to change the subject, but she remembered how he’d thought she didn’t trust him and she realized it was time to let him in, no matter how much it hurt. She pulled away, needing a little distance to gather her courage. ”I’m not going to lie, William. It was hard. No, actually, it was one of the worst pains I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
William felt a lump form in his throat. Her words hurt to hear, but the fact that she was trusting him with them meant everything.
She looked up at him again. “I wanted you there. Every day, I wished you could be there, I wished for you to come home. But I didn’t just hurt for me, I hurt for you, too. There was so much that we missed out on, so much that I know would have meant so much to you, and that’s what hurt the most.”
“Lizzie…” his voice was hoarse with emotion. “Oh, Lizzie.” He pulled her into his arms as sobs overtook her.
After several minutes, Lizzie sat up and dried her tears. She studied her husband for a moment and decided it was time. Without a word, she walked over the the entertainment center, opened one of the cupboards and pulled out an unmarked DVD. Once it was set up, she picked up the remote and returned to William.
“While you were…away, Gigi and I documented everything we could about my pregnancy and Liam for you. Birthdays, milestones, doctor’s appointments, it’s all here.”
William inhaled sharply. This was it, all the missing pieces of his son’s life. “You did that for me?”
“I did it for us. I knew that when you came home you would want to feel included. I know it’s not the same as you actually being there, but this will at least fill in some of the blanks.”
“I didn’t want to overwhelm you at first, especially after I shared the photos with you and they made you so upset. If you’re not ready for this yet, we can wait, but it’s here whenever you want it.”
Back in April, he hadn’t been ready to face what he’d missed, but he thought maybe he was now. At least he could try, and if it got to be too much, they could stop. “I’m ready, at least I think I am.“
“Okay.” She handed him the remote. “You can decide when to start and stop.” She gripped his hand. “But I’ll be right here with you the whole time.”
“Thank you for doing this.”
“You’re welcome.” She kissed his cheek. “If you have any questions about anything, or you want me to share details about any of these events and milestones, I will do my best to fill you in. I can’t promise that my memories are fail proof though.”
“That’s fair.” He grasped her hand more tightly and pressed ‘play’.
Gigi’s face came on the screen. “Hi, William, I’m going to film everything so you feel like you’re here with us.” She moved the camera and he got his first glimpse of Lizzie, her tummy bare while someone attached something to it. As the camera shifted to a small monitor with a black and white image, William sucked in a breath. That was him. That was his son.
As the videos progressed, William found himself falling in love with his son all over again. Seeing Lizzie’s pregnant belly, hearing Liam’s heart beat, seeing Lizzie hold their son for the first time, watching his son take his first steps and celebrate his first birthday; it all made him feel a little bit closer to both of them. He hadn’t been there and he would always regret that fact, whether it had been in his control or not, but at least now he felt a little less left out.
The most difficult aspect of watching the videos was the look of deep sadness that was visible beneath the surface of Lizzie’s eyes in every shot of her. She often had deep circles beneath them, and though it was evident that she was trying to hide it, William could tell that she had barely been keeping herself together. Seeing her so sad made his heart ache, and with each scene that passed, he held her more closely against him. He never wanted her to have to face that kind of pain again.
On the other hand, the obvious love between Lizzie and Liam in the videos made William’s chest fill with warmth. It was apparent that Lizzie had worked hard to give Liam the best possible life that she could under the circumstances, and he marvelled at the inner strength she must have had in order to do that. He wasn’t sure he would have been able to, had their positions been reversed. He winced at the thought. He would not wish his experience on anyone, least of all his incredible wife.
When they reached the end of the DVD, William kissed her. “Thank you, Lizzie. Not just for sharing these with me, but also for taking such amazing care of our son. Liam is incredibly lucky to have you.”
Lizzie framed his face with her hands. “He’s very lucky to have you, too.” She kissed him, and he would have kissed her back except at that exact moment, there was a knock at the door. “Speaking of Liam —”
William sighed. “My sister always did have impeccable timing.”
As July dawned, Lizzie and William were both feeling a little more at ease with each other and with their situation. They had started family reunification therapy, as well as individual counseling, not long after their anniversary and though they still had a lot to work through, it was helping.
One of the biggest breakthroughs came after dinner one night. William was loading the dishwasher as Lizzie started leading Liam to his room to get him ready for his bath and bed, when he stopped and looked up at her. “Mama, I want Daddy tonight.”
The plate William was holding nearly slipped from his hand. Shaking, he set it down carefully and stared at his wife and son, convinced that he’d heard wrong.
Lizzie was frozen in place. It was the first time Liam had referred to William as ‘Daddy’ since that first day they met in the park, and his sudden use of the word made her well up.
Liam didn’t seem to notice the reaction though. He tugged his hand out of Lizzie’s and ran over to William. “Daddy, give me baf tonight?” Liam reached for his hand before remembering that he should use his manners. “Please?” he added.
William swallowed the giant lump that had formed in his throat. “Yes, Liam.”
“YAY!” Liam tugged on his hand. “Come on, Daddy, go! Less go!”
Lizzie’s heart felt full as she watched her husband and son walk down the hall together, while Liam chattered happily about the toys he wanted to take into the bath. She had waited for this moment for nearly four years, and to have it happen so unexpectedly and naturally, gave her emotions that she couldn’t even form into words.
William felt stunned. and a little shell-shocked as he undressed his son and ran his bath for him, all while Liam pranced around talking non-stop. “I want bubbles!”
“Okay.” He picked up the bottle that was kept on the ledge above the bathtub, safely out of reach.
When Lizzie popped her head in to check on them a little while later, she was met with the sight of William kneeling next to the tub, scooping bubbles into his hands and applying them to his face. Liam shrieked with laughter and brushed them off. “You silly, Daddy.”
William responded by scooping up more bubbles and placing them on the top of Liam’s head. This caused Liam to splash him and William splashed him back, careful to avoid the eyes. Soon the bathroom and William were soaked, but Lizzie didn’t care. These were the kinds of moments they had all been waiting for. A little bit of extra cleanup was completely worth it.
After the bath, Lizzie tried to get Liam ready for bed while William changed into dry clothes, but her son was having none of it. “No. Mama, stop.”
“I need to dry you off, sweetheart.”
“No.” Liam started to cry. “I want Daddy.”
William walked into the room then, his chest tight with emotion. He didn’t know where this sudden burst of acceptance had come from, but he’d take it. “I’m here now, Liam, but it’s time for bed,” he said gently but firmly, leaning down so they were on the same level. His leg was throbbing a bit after all the kneeling during the bath, but William didn’t care.
“Okay.” He stopped crying. “Dinosaur ‘jamas?”
While William helped Liam pull said dinosaur pajamas over his head, Lizzie quietly slipped from the room.
Once he was changed, Liam picked out a book and climbed onto William’s lap. As William read to his son, he rocked back and forth gently, and by the time he reached the end of the story, Liam had fallen asleep, his head resting against William’s torso. Love and affection overcame him and silent tears of joy started to roll down his cheeks. He sat in the chair with Liam on his lap for a long time, just staring down at him in awe and wonder. For the first time since his return, he felt like a proper father and he was going to relish in the moment for as long as possible.
“How was your doctor’s appointment?” Lizzie asked one night at dinner.
“It was good.” William smiled. “I’m cleared to drive again.”
“Yes. A whole month earlier than he’d predicted. He said my leg was strong enough now that he thinks it can handle the pressure of driving. No long distances yet though.”
“Oh, William that’s great news!” Lizzie grinned. He’d been growing increasingly grumpy at the inconvenience of having to depend on other people to drive him places.
“It is. I’ve missed driving.”
“I’ll bet.” She leaned over to put some more carrots on Liam’s tray. “Did he say anything else?”
“Well,” William took a sip of his water. “We talked about surgery.”
Lizzie looked up, alarmed. “Surgery?”
“Yes. If I ever want to be completely free of the limp and get my leg back to its former shape, they have to rebreak the bone and cast it properly.” William winced at the thought. “He says there’s no medical reason I need to have it done at this point though. If I don’t have it done, I’ll just be stuck with the limp.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“I think I’d like to hold off, at least for now. I can get around well enough now and stay on my leg longer. I haven’t been using my cane as much either.”
“That’s true. You haven’t used it since the last day we had rain.”
“Exactly. I feel like I can live with it now and I’ve got good mobility. If I have the surgery, I’ll be in a cast for up to three months. That’s a long time to basically be out of commission.”
“Yeah it is.” Lizzie thought about how well things had been going with Liam. Just that past weekend, they’d gone to the park and Liam had been delighted when William took him down the tallest slide. If William had to be in a cast for three months, he’d miss out on stuff like that. He’d already missed so much, she didn’t like the idea of him missing more if he didn’t have to.
“I’d much rather live with a limp than miss more time with Liam.” He said, echoing her thoughts. “Does that make sense?”
Lizzie nodded. “Absolutely. If that’s what you’d like to do, then I support you.”
“You seemed quiet at dinner tonight,” Lizzie said when they were lying in bed together. “Is it because of Gigi’s news?”
William smiled at that. Gigi and Matthew had come over for dinner that night and had shared that they were going to have a girl. “Oh, no. I’m delighted for them.”
“Me too. It’s nice to see Gigi so happy.”
“Yes. It is. She’s going to be such a great mother.” He turned onto his side so he was facing Lizzie. “When she was little, she used to make me play ‘house’ with her sometimes and I was always the baby. I hated it, but I would always indulge her anyway and she was always very natural, even with her fake mothering. She used to copy our mom, and she was pretty amazing so if Gigi is anything like our mother, my niece is one very lucky baby.”
“Yes, she is. Gigi’s been an excellent aunt to Liam, I have no doubts that she’ll be amazing with her own family.” She paused. “What’s got you so distracted then?”
“The board meeting, tomorrow.” William felt sick to his stomach just thinking about it.
Lizzie propped herself up on her elbow and looked down at him. “How come?”
William sighed. Maybe it was time to fill Lizzie in on his struggles at work. “I feel so lost at Pemberley right now, Lizzie. The media world changed so much while I was gone and, no matter how many reports I read or how many old projects I watch, I feel like I’m always out of the loop. Matthew has done an amazing job with Pemberley since he took over. It’s thriving under his direction and I feel like if I were to take over right now, it would hurt the company. Plus, if I take over, where does that leave Matthew? I can’t put my sister’s husband and the father of my future niece out of a job. It wouldn’t be right.”
“I’m pretty sure the board will find him another position if they need to, but I had no idea it was so rough for you, William. I’m sorry.”
“I was gone for nearly four years and it’s going to take more than a few months for me to feel like I can handle the responsibility of running the company again. I don’t even know if that’s what I want anymore.”
“What do you want?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. We can afford for me to not work for awhile, but I don’t just want to be at home alone all day, with nothing to occupy me. That’s the main reason I went back to work in the first place, but it’s all too much, too overwhelming. My heart just isn’t there right now, Lizzie. My heart is here, with you, and with Liam.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not even making sense. I don’t know what I want, Lizzie, I just know that taking over the reins at Pemberley is not the right choice for me right now.”
Lizzie remained silent, processing his words and kicking herself mentally for not seeing this sooner. He’d barely been back for five months, it made complete sense that he wasn’t ready to take the business world by storm again. She understood his hesitation to stay home alone though, staying busy made it easier to block out thoughts. She’d done the same thing when he’d first disappeared. “Is there another role you could fill at Pemberley? Something without the same level of pressure and responsibility?”
“Maybe? I had thought of that, but I’m not sure that’s what I want either.” He smiled wryly. “My mind is extraordinarily indecisive right now.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. These aren’t the kinds of decisions that should be made lightly.”
“That is very true.”
Lizzie thought about what he’d said, about his heart being with her and Liam, and an idea formed. “I have another suggestion.”
“We could pull Liam out of child care. Maybe not every day, since he still needs to socialize with other children his age, but the two of you have missed out on so much time together already and he’s growing up so quickly. Maybe this is an opportunity for the two of you to bond further.”
“You would trust me with that?” William’s voice was awed and full of emotion.
“Of course I would, William. You’re his father.” Lizzie reached out and cupped his cheek. “I think it would be good for both of you.”
William still had no idea what he wanted from his career, now or in the future, but he knew with certainty that spending more time with his son was something he wanted and needed right now. He kissed the palm of her hand. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. You still have to tell the board.”
William was preparing lunch for himself and Liam one afternoon, when there was an unexpected knock at the door.
“Me get! Me get!” Liam cried, abandoning the blocks he’d been stacking and running for the door. William quickly dried his hands and followed his son, wondering who would be calling on them in the middle of the week.
He reached the door just as Liam had arched up onto his tiptoes and was trying to twist the handle without success. William reached above him to unlock the door, then helped Liam pull it open.
“AUNTIE!” Liam yelled, his eyes lighting up as he saw Lydia standing there.
“Hi, Liam.” She grinned down at him, then looked up at William. “Hi Darcy!”
“You know you can call me William.”
Lydia wrinkled her nose. “It sounds too normal and boring.” He smiled. His name had become a bit of a running joke between them over the years, and he was pleased that it hadn’t changed in his absence.
“Come see what I maked!” Liam took Lydia’s hand and tugged her over to where he’d been playing before. “Look! See it?”
“So what brings you here in the middle of the week?” William asked, following them into the living room.
“It’s lovely,” Lydia said to Liam, setting her bag down on the coffee table and crouching next to her nephew. To William she said, “I’m actually in town for a few days for some book publicity, but I have no commitments until tomorrow so I thought I’d see if you guys were around. I’m assuming Lizzie’s still at work?”
“She is. She’ll be home before dinner.” William returned to the kitchen. “Liam and I were just about to have lunch, would you like to join us?”
Lydia accepted a block from Liam, then turned her head so she could see William. “That would be great, thank you.”
“Auntie, put here.” Liam directed, and Lydia quickly indulged him while William finished preparing them lunch.
After they finished eating a short while later, Lydia cleared her throat. “So, uh, I have something for you.”
“Oh?” William frowned, trying to contemplate what it could possibly be. It wasn’t anywhere near his birthday.
Lydia went over to her bag and pulled something out. She returned and held it out to him. “I got some advanced copies of my book and I wanted you to have one.”
William stared down at it. “Thank you. Wow, look at that, your name all embossed on the front and everything.”
“I know. I still feel like I’m dreaming half the time.” She sat next to him and opened the cover, flipping to one of the first pages. “Read this!”
William quickly glanced across the table to make sure that Liam was still fine before reading the words on the page.
This book is dedicated to my beloved brother-in-law William Darcy, whose encouragement and support inspired me to take a risk and record the stories in my head. This story would not exist without you, William. Thank you. We are all so incredibly lucky to have you in our lives.
Tears threatened to fall as he read the final words and his voice was hoarse when he looked at her and said, “Thank you for this, Lydia. It means so much.”
“Thank you, William. I mean it, I would never have started this without your encouragement.”
“Daddy why you cry?” Liam interrupted. “Daddy owie? Me kiss?”
Lydia and William both laughed. “I’m okay, Liam. These are happy tears.”
Liam tilted his head, as though he were considering whether to believe him or not. “Okay.” He pushed at his tray. “Want out.”
William set Lydia’s book carefully on the counter and quickly wiped his son down before lifting him out of the highchair. Liam squirmed in his arms and started to pat William’s face. “Go park, Daddy?”
He looked at Lydia. “What do you think? Would you like to come to the park with us? Liam can show you his amazing sliding skills.”
“Yes. Slide!” Liam kicked his legs. “Wanna slide, now!”
“Well, we all know I’m a professional slider. I’m definitely in!”
“YAY!” Liam rocked back and forth excitedly, causing William to nearly lose his grip on him. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
“You heard him!” Lydia said, leading the way to the door. “Let’s go slide!”
The afternoon of the 16th of August, Gigi showed up on their doorstep just after William had put Liam down for his afternoon nap.
“Gigi? What’s wrong?”
Without answering, Gigi threw herself into his arms, her tears soaking into his shirt. Alarmed, William patted his sister on the back, trying to comfort her. “What is it? Is it Matthew? Did you have a fight?”
“No, Matthew and I are fine.”
Baffled, William guided his sister into the other room to sit down and brought her a glass of water. She sipped at it, then said, “I’m sorry, William.”
“It’s okay Gigi, just please, tell me what’s wrong. Maybe I can help?”
Gigi shook her head. “I’m a terrible sister.”
“I am. Don’t you see, William? Three years ago today, Aunt Catherine and I held a memorial for you, and all along you were out there, hurting and imprisoned.”
William gaped at his sister. She was blaming herself for that? “Gigi, listen to me. You had no possible way of knowing that I was coming back. No one did. Your response was perfectly acceptable and natural, and it was absolutely what you needed to do in order to move on.”
“You’re not mad?”
“No. Never. Gigi, I love you and I want you to be happy. You did what you had to do to accomplish that. I do not blame you.” He hugged her. “Have you been holding onto that guilt all this time?”
“I thought I was over it, but then today, I was at work and I saw the date and, I don't know. I just lost it.” Gigi wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry, this pregnancy has my emotions all over the map right now. I think that’s part of it. I shouldn’t have come.” She started to get up.
“No, Gigi. Don’t go. It’s okay.” He tugged her back to sit next to him. “Healing isn’t a straight line.”
“You sound like my therapist.”
William chuckled. “Well, I did get that line from my therapist.”
“That explains it.” She smiled.
“Liam will be asleep for a bit longer, why don’t we have a snack and catch up? We’ve got cookies.”
“Did you make them?”
“I did. With Liam.”
“Look at my big brother, getting all domestic,” Gigi teased.
“Hey, you’ll be next.” He cast a meaningful glance at her growing abdominal region.
She laughed. “Seriously though, being a stay at home dad suits you. You look so much more relaxed than you were before you officially stepped down last month.”
“It was the right choice for me, for now. I missed so much with him already, Gigi. I don’t want to miss any more.”
Gigi took one of the cookies he offered. “I know you don’t. You made the right choice. How are things going with Liam, anyway? I haven’t seen you guys in a while.”
“Good.” William smiled, remembering the little hug he’d received just before he had laid his son down for his nap earlier. “Really good.”
“I’m glad.” Gigi took a bite of the cookie. “You’re a great father. He’s lucky to have you.”
Later that evening, after Liam was asleep, William came to Lizzie with a stack of old looking paper.
“Lizzie,” he said, perching himself on the edge of the bed beside her. “I know you still have a lot of questions about what happened to me and I want you to know, but it’s difficult for me to talk about.” He handed her the stack of papers. “I wrote to you. Not every day, but as often as I could. I didn’t know if you’d ever get to see them, but writing those letters helped me get through some of my darkest days.”
Lizzie looked at the top letter and saw the words, ‘My Dear Sweet Lizzie’. He hadn’t called her that since he’d come back and she wondered now if this was why. She offered him a shaky smile. “Thank you for these.” She paused. “I wrote to you also.”
Lizzie carefully placed his letters next to her and scrambled off the bed. She opened the bottom drawer of her dresser and pulled out the carved wooden box her father had given her before their wedding. It was nearly identical the the one he’d given Gigi. “They’re all here, every letter I wrote during the time you were away. I don’t even remember what I wrote in half of them, but they will help you see what I was going through.”
William took the box, his palms feeling suddenly sweaty with anticipation. “Thank you.”
Lizzie picked up his letters again with shaking hands. “Are they in order?”
“Yes. There are no dates, because I did not know even what time of year it was most of the time, but they’re all there, right up to the very last letter I wrote in the Embassy while I was waiting for you.”
“Okay.” She unfolded the top letter, her throat going dry with sudden nervousness. Tears sprung to her eyes as she read about his experience after the earthquake. Her heart seized as she read about him being captured at gunpoint, his rebroken leg. She had to stop reading to compose herself before she could continue. She had imagined at least a thousand different scenarios in the past four years, but reading about what actually happened, in his own words, was more painful than she’d expected. By the time she got to the end of it, she could barely see. No wonder he had trouble talking about it.
While Lizzie was reading, William carefully opened the wooden box. Her letters were lined up in a neat row and he pulled out the first one, careful not to disturb the rest. He opened it, taking a moment to run his fingers along her careful script. There were several spots of discoloration on the paper where her tears must have fallen, and he had to swallow a lump in his throat before he was able to begin reading. As he read the words, ‘You’re going to be a father, William’, the careful hold he’d been keeping on his emotions snapped, and his eyes immediately dampened. How difficult it must have been for her to write those words rather than tell him in person.
When he finished reading, he turned to Lizzie. Tears were streaming down her face. She met his gaze and offered him a shaky smile. “I’m so sorry, William. I had no idea… I…” She looked down at the letter, lost for words. He felt much the same way.
“You don’t have to read any more if you don’t want to,” William said softly. He would spare her this pain if he could.
Lizzie took a deep breath. “No, I want to. I just need a moment.” She pointed to the box. “How are you doing?”
“Okay. I am so very sorry that I was not able to hurry back as you requested. I would have, if it had been in my power. I swear to you, Lizzie.”
“I know.” She closed the distance between them and kissed him as much to comfort herself as to comfort him. Then she picked up the next letter. This was something that she needed to do.
Despite the lateness of the hour, they spent the next several hours reading each other’s letters, pausing periodically to ask each other questions, to elaborate, or sometimes just to reassure themselves that the other person was still there.
More than once, William’s letters moved Lizzie to tears and when she finished, she felt raw and bruised. He had been through so much - an improperly treated broken bone, wrongful imprisonment, isolation, constant fear for what would happen next. It was no wonder he had nightmares and didn’t want to be alone. She wouldn’t want to be alone under those circumstances either.
And yet, despite what he’d been through, most of his letters were surprisingly touching, filled with their story, with his love for her and his memories of their time together. Her heart felt full with the realization of just how much he loved her. She hoped he knew that, regardless of the struggles and challenges they’d faced recently, she felt the same way.
As William read through Lizzie’s letters, his heart broke repeatedly. It was clear to him that she had been hanging on by a thread, and he, marveled at the courage it must have taken her to overcome that and still look after Liam day in and day out. When he came to a letter with Liam’s handprint on it, he traced a finger over the outline of his son’s hand. It was so unfathomably tiny that it was difficult to reconcile it with the small hands he was now so familiar with.
His breath caught in his throat as he read through her last letters. The outpouring of emotion and pain seized at his heart. He knew how difficult it must have been for her to have reached that point, for her to be willing to let go. Her anguished words twisted and tore at the very core of his being. This letter had been written only a few days before his return. He couldn’t begin to imagine what kind of emotional whiplash that must have caused her.
Lizzie grew nervous as William reached her final letters. She had contemplated pulling them, but she knew that they needed total honesty in order to get through this. She held her breath as he read, as tears formed in the corners of his eyes. “Oh, Lizzie,” he said hoarsely when he was done. “My dear sweet Lizzie.”
He wrapped an arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should never have given up on you like that. I failed you.”
“No, Lizzie. You did the right thing. You did not know I was about to come back. I said in one of my letters, I did not expect you to keep holding on and I meant it. It wouldn’t have been healthy for you to do that. For you or for Liam. Am I glad I was found before you signed? Yes, absolutely, but do I blame you for your willingness to move on so you could take better care of yourself and Liam? Not at all.You did the right thing, Lizzie.”
They clung to one another long into the night afterward, neither of them feeling much like sleeping. Instead, they spoke more openly to each other about their experiences while they were apart, and when Liam came in to wake them the next morning, he found them propped against the headboard, arms still wrapped tightly around each other as their heads lolled to the side in a decidedly uncomfortable slumber.
After the night where Lizzie and William had shared their letters with each other, things started to shift between them, and the cloud of unspoken pain surrounding their long separation no longer felt quite as stifling. As difficult as it had been to relive each other’s experiences, it had been cleansing. Things were not perfect, but they were finally moving forward.
One evening in September, Lizzie came home to find the apartment empty. A green dress was laid out on the bed, along with an envelope with her name written on it in William’s careful script. She opened the envelope and pulled out a note.
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
Do you remember the first date we ever had once you moved to the city? The one you hated because you felt it was over the top and ‘not us’? Well tonight, I wish to bring the opposite. What we’re doing, and where we’re going, is a surprise. Get ready. Gigi will arrive at 6:00 with further instructions.
Lizzie smiled. William could be such a romantic fool sometimes, and it was nice to see it coming out again. She held the letter against her chest for a moment, sighing happily before turning her attention to the dress. It was simple, but beautiful, and she couldn’t help but note that the color matched the shirt she’d worn when they’d shared their first kiss on her vlogs all those years ago.
She took her time getting ready, paying extra attention to her hair and makeup. As she moved about the apartment, her heart fluttered with anticipation, making her feel giddy and lightheaded.
As promised, Gigi arrived at 6:00 with Liam in tow.
“This is for you,” she said, presenting Lizzie with another small envelope.
Lizzie pulled out the note, her curiosity heightened. What exactly did he have planned?
My Dear Sweet Lizzie,
Meet me at the Presidio at 6:30. Bring a sweater.
“Before you ask,” Gigi said hastily, “I know nothing. I’m only the messenger.” She looked at Liam. “And the babysitter.”
“Mama,” Liam said, giving her a hug around the knees and then handing her a box. “Daddy said give you this.”
Lizzie opened the box and found a beautiful silver necklace with a pendant that had a scripted “L” looped over a scripted “W”. As far as big romantic gestures went, William was winning all the awards. And she hadn’t even laid eyes on him yet.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” she said to Liam, kissing the top of his head.
Gigi helped her put it on and Lizzie toyed with it for a moment, before pulling on her sweater and grabbing her purse.
“You be good for Aunt Gigi,” she told Liam.
“Okay.” He gave her another hug around the legs and pranced off to play.
“Have a good time,” Gigi said “Don’t worry about how late you are. Liam and I have everything covered.”
“Thank you, Gigi.”
The Presidio was nearly deserted when she got there, but it didn’t take long for her to locate him standing near the water, the Golden Gate Bridge looming majestically behind him.
“Hi,” she said, suddenly feeling shy. She felt a bit like they were on their very first date again.
“Lizzie!” William watched her approach, his eyes roaming over her appreciatively. She was always beautiful, but tonight she looked radiant. The necklace he’d had made for her sat perfectly against her collarbone and when she reached him, he traced a finger over it. His initial and hers, forever fused together. He loved the symbolism of it.
“The necklace is beautiful,” she told him. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He kissed her cheek and entwined his hand with hers.
They walked along the beach for a while, talking as they went and stopping periodically to give his leg a rest. William filled her in on his day with Liam (sans date preparations), and she told him about the conversation she’d had with Lydia on the phone; her novel was selling well and the publisher had given her a second contract.
The sun was beginning to set when they turned back and the skyline behind the Golden Gate Bridge was filled with vibrant streaks of color. It was breathtaking.
Lizzie shivered and William wrapped an arm around her. She tucked herself against him and realized that she was content. Her worries and anxieties were still there, and the pain she’d experienced while William had been away would probably never fade completely, but she felt like she, like they, were finally moving past it. William’s decision to step down at Pemberley, and stay at home with Liam, was one that had caused him to thrive. Every day when she got home, she could see the difference and with each moment of bonding she witnessed between her husband and son, she felt a little more whole. They were going to be okay.
She looked up at William and was overcome with love for him. They had been through so much, him especially, and they had survived it. It was miraculous really.
William felt Lizzie’s gaze on him and, he as he dipped his head down to look at her, she rolled up to her tiptoes and kissed him.
The passion in her kiss took him by surprise and caused his pulse to quicken. He pressed her against him, giving himself over completely to the kiss and his feelings for her. Her lips were swollen when they pulled apart a few minutes later and he couldn’t resist tracing a finger over them. He tucked her hair behind her ear. “You are so breathtakingly beautiful, Lizzie.”
“I could say the same about you, William. Sometimes I see you with Liam, or just sitting reading a book, and I can’t breathe. You make me feel— I don’t want to say complete, that’s cheesy, but I don’t know how else to put it.”
“I feel the same way.” He kissed her again with slow, deliberate motions, before straightening up and threading his fingers through hers. “Are you getting hungry?”
Lizzie was still recovering from the emotions his kiss had brought to the surface so she nodded.
He led the way back to the car and drove them to Golden Gate Park. As they got out of the car, he pulled a basket out of the trunk, then came around and offered Lizzie his arm. He guided her to a tree that was off to the side and procured a blanket from the basket, which he stretched out on the grass.
Lizzie spun around slowly, taking in their surroundings. The spot was nothing special, just a small section of a larger field, and yet Lizzie recognized it instantly. It was here that she and William had shared one of their most memorable kisses not long after she’d moved to San Francisco. As she recalled, they’d been in the park for an open air concert that they had both ended up hating, but they’d made the most of it.
“Do you recognize it?” William asked as he sat down.
“I do.” Lizzie settled herself beside him. “God, that band was awful. What were they called? The Fried Dumptrucks or something?”
“I don’t even recall,” William said honestly. He had only gone to that concert because he’d thought it would be something she’d like. He’d been relieved when he learned she’d hated them as much as he had.
“It’s not important.” Lizzie had a faraway look in her eyes, and he wondered if she was also thinking about the intense kisses they’d shared that night. Her eyes met his and the intensity of her expression, the heat in her eyes, made him gravitate closer to her.
If their kisses by the bridge had been passionate, this one was a step beyond. His skin felt hot after the first brush of lip against lip, and by the time she broke away to catch her breath, his entire body vibrated with need.
Lizzie swallowed. Her hunger for dinner had been replaced by an entirely different kind of hunger and she wished they weren’t in public. She loved William so much, and her fingers itched to touch him, to trail gentle pathways along every inch of his body, to make him ache for her the way she ached for him. She forced herself to look away and distracted herself by reaching for the picnic basket.
They managed to keep up a steady flow of conversation as they ate the meal William had packed for them, but through it all, there was an undercurrent of heightened attraction between them that never quite went away.
When they had both finished, William packed everything neatly back in the basket and turned to Lizzie. “So I was going to take you out dancing after this but—“
Lizzie heard his hesitance and voiced what she knew they both wanted. “— Let’s go home.”
It seemed to take forever for Gigi to leave once they got home, but as soon as she was gone, they were in each other’s arms, their kisses rushed and frantic. They stumbled to the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothing in their wake, as their hands sought to caress and explore each other.
There was no time to think, there was only time to feel, to do, as they gave in to their intense desire for each other, and soon, they were both panting and breathless as they finally managed to bridge the gap that had eluded them for months.
William woke one morning in October to find Lizzie propped up on one elbow, watching him intently.
“Did anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to stare?” He teased.
“Nah, Mom always encouraged it. She thought it would improve our chances of getting a husband.”
William laughed. “Well, I don’t know about increased chances of matrimony, but your prospect for kisses is looking pretty good.”
“Is it now?” Lizzie didn’t move. “What if I told you I don’t want kisses?”
“Then I’d ask you what you do want.”
“To tell you how perfect you are.”
William scoffed. “I’m hardly perfect. I’m barely adequate.”
“No, William, to me, you are perfect. Every flaw, every scar, every painful memory. They’re all a part of who you are, and who you have become, and I love each and every one of them.”
They’d been intimate again for several weeks now, but his self consciousness still crept in every once in a while, making him feel unworthy of her. He’d had a moment like that the night before, in fact, and her words now caused a lump to form in his throat.
“I mean it, William. You never have to hide from me.”
God, he loved her. He reached out to caress her face. “Nor you from me. You are the very epitome of perfection in my eyes.”
“Epitome of perfection?” Lizzie grinned. “I like that.”
“Good, because it’s true.” He kissed her.
“I love you, William.” Lizzie said when he’d pulled away. “I don’t think I say it often enough. I love you. So much.”
“I love you, too.” He was about to kiss her again when the patter of tiny feet alerted them both to the fact that their son was up.
Liam had moved to a ‘big boy bed’ several weeks before, and ever since, he had asserted his newfound freedom by climbing into bed with them nearly every morning. More than once, he had nearly caught them in a compromising position, and Lizzie was convinced that they were going to end up accidentally scarring him for life.
This morning, he chose to climb up on Lizzie’s side of the bed, rewarding her with a knee right near her bladder. “Good morning, Mama!” He said, flopping himself over her in the kind of carefree hug that only very young children seemed able to accomplish.
“Good morning, sweetheart.” She bent to kiss his forehead but he was already squirming away and attacking his father.
“Hi Daddy!” Liam placed a wet, open-mouthed kiss on his cheek.
William grinned. He relished these moments. “Good morning, Liam.”
Liam started to jump on the bed in the small gap between them, throwing his body down with complete abandon.
The alarm on Lizzie’s phone went off and she moaned. “Ugh. I have to get ready for work.” She forced herself out of bed, even though she wanted nothing more than to remain in bed with her husband and son. Not that Liam was going to tolerate it much longer, though.
Sure enough, Liam hurled himself at William. “Daddy, get up. We have things to do.”
“Oh, really, like what?” William teased, knowing perfectly well what he’d promised Liam they’d do that day.
“Splorium?” Lizzie asked, suddenly struck by the realization that William and Liam were developing a shorthand between them that she wasn’t a part of. It probably should have bothered her but instead, it delighted her, because it was another sign that Liam had fully accepted William as his father. She couldn’t give them back his first three years, but she could give them this.
“The Exploratorium,” William explained, “I promised him I’d take him there today.” He sat up and looked at his son. “So we can see all the science.”
“SCIENCE!” Liam glance back at his mother. “Science is fun, Mama.”
Lizzie laughed as she finished getting dressed. “I know Daddy thinks so.”
“Uh huh,” Liam said earnestly. “Daddy’s a’ways right.”
“You think so?”
“Yup. Daddy knows everything.” Liam looked at William. “‘Cept how to get up,” he added with dismay.
William and Lizzie both laughed. “Okay, okay, I’m getting up.”
As William stood up, Liam cheered. “Splorium! Splorium! Can we go now?”
“We’ll go after breakfast.” William scooped up his son and carried him out of the room, as Lizzie went to go brush her teeth. “What will it be. Waffles? Or cereal?”
Two and a half hours later, William and Liam were at the Exploratorium. Liam was having the time of his life, dragging William from one display after the other, asking questions and hanging on to every word as his father explained as simply as he could.
They came to a room where shadows were shown on a time delay, and Liam immediately shrieked with joy as he danced around and his shadow was saved as he moved.
“Dance wif me, Daddy.” Liam tugged him into the room, and together they moved around. William held his son up in the air and spun him around. Liam threw his head back and laughed as the shadows began to appear. He spread out his arms. “Look, I’m flying!”
As they moved on and Liam spotted more things that he could touch and explore, William watched him with an overwhelming sense of fondness. Sharing his love of science with his son, and seeing Liam’s excitement about it, touched something deep within him. Long before Liam had existed, whenever William thought about having a family of his own, he had imagined this - getting to share his love of science and technology and literature with his son, and to have part of that fulfilled now meant so much to him.
After they left the Exploratorium, William treated his son to ice cream. As they sat side by side on a bench eating their ice cream, Liam suddenly looked up at him. “Daddy, you goed ‘way for a long time.”
William sucked in a breath. This was the first time Liam had ever said anything that acknowledged his absence. “That’s right, I was,” he said carefully.
“But now you’re here!”
“I love you, Daddy. I’m glad you comed back.” Liam turned back to his ice cream, managing to smear it over his chin and his nose in the process.
William watched him, his chest tight with emotion. “I love you too, Liam,” he whispered.
A few days before Christmas, the entire Bennet clan arrived in San Francisco, breaking the tradition of celebrating at the Bennet household. Between it being William’s first Christmas back and Gigi being due in mid December, it had made more sense for everyone else to come to them. Even Caroline was joining them. Catherine de Bourgh had surprised everyone by offering her seldom used San Francisco estate for celebratory and accommodation purposes, and she and her beloved Anniekins had been surprisingly gracious hosts.
The house had more than enough bedrooms for everyone and, for the duration of the holiday, Lizzie, William, and Liam, along with Gigi and Matthew, also relocated to the de Bourgh house. Lizzie was thrilled to have her sisters around and William was delighted for the opportunity to catch up with Bing.
Mr. Bennet had brought some of his trains with him and on their first day in the house, he enlisted Liam, Charlie, and Ella to help him set them up. All of the children were delighted to help their beloved grandfather with the task, and the joyous laughter they shared set a tone for the rest of the week.
Gigi, however, was a week overdue and miserable. Her ankles were swollen, her back ached, and she was approximately the size of a hippopotamus. Matthew was being as helpful as possible, rubbing her back, making sure she was comfortable, reassuring her, but at this point all she wanted was to get this baby out of her, and the further past her due date it got, the grumpier she became.
On the first night, after a very lively dinner with three young children and twelve adults who had all competed for attention over each other, Lizzie escaped to her room for a bit, intending to unpack and settle in a bit while she sought some much needed quiet. Instead, she ended up lying down for a moment because she felt tired and achy and the next thing she knew, William was waking her up.
“Lizzie? Are you not well?”
She blinked sleepily. “I’m sorry I must have fallen asleep. What time is it?”
“Nearly nine o’clock.” William sat down on the bed and pulled off his shoes.
“What?” Lizzie sat up quickly. “I slept for nearly three hours? Liam needs to go to bed.” She started to swing her legs over the side of the bed but William stilled her with his hand.
“It’s okay, I put Liam to bed earlier. He was getting cranky.”
“Oh. Okay. Good. Thank you.” Lizzie yawned. “I guess I was tired.”
“It seems so. Which is why I asked if you’re feeling okay.”
“I think so. I’ve been pretty tired for the past few days. All the Christmas shopping and family time is probably catching up to me.” She yawned again and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Yeah, it has been pretty busy. I hope that’s it. It’s no fun to be sick around the holidays.” He pulled her in for a hug.
Lizzie started to put her arms around him to hug him back when a sudden pain in her breasts caused her to recoil. “Ow!”
“What’s wrong?” William looked at her in alarm.
“I don’t know. My breasts are really tender for some reason. They haven’t hurt like that since —“ Lizzie froze.
Lizzie met his eyes. “Since Liam.”
“Liam?” William’s stomach fluttered. “Are you saying you might be…” He trailed off, not daring to give voice to the word, to make it tangible and give himself false hope.
“I don’t know. I mean, maybe?” She met William’s gaze, saw the hope reflected there and swallowed. Were they ready for this? “What’s the date today?”
Lizzie bit her lip, doing calculations in her head. “My period should have started five days ago.”
“And it has not?”
“No. I have been so busy with Christmas shopping, work, and you and Liam that I hadn’t even noticed.”
William shifted so he could see her face better. “How did you know for sure last time, with Liam?”
“I took a test.” By myself. This time could be different, this time they could go through every step together. She wanted that, more than anything.
“Okay, so should we…” he gestured outside.
“It’s a bit late tonight, but—-” she hesitated. She’d been about to suggest they go get one the next day, but now that the idea had been planted in her head, she didn’t want to wait to know. The only problem was that her mother was in the house, and she would definitely know something was up if she saw them leaving the house this late at night. She loved her mother, but even if she was pregnant, this was something that she and William needed to share with each other before they started introducing other people to it.
“But?” William prompted, his own thoughts now all over the place. If Lizzie was pregnant, they could have a second chance to share in the experience. Liam already brought them so much joy, he could only imagine the delight another child would be; and he knew Liam would be a great big brother.
“We could go tonight, but that will entail getting past my mother without sparking her baby radar.”
“She and your father went to bed just before I came up to wake you.”
“Really? Okay, let’s wait until everyone else has gone to bed and then we can find one of those 24 hour pharmacies around here. Or we could just wait for tomorrow.”
Waiting would be the practical thing to do, but William wasn’t feeling especially practical. “I think we should do it now. If you’re not, then I’d rather know now so I don’t get my hopes up.”
Lizzie could understand that. “What if I’m not, William? What then? Is this something that we want? Are we ready for this?”
Until the possibility had been presented to him, William hadn’t really thought about other children just yet, but now that it had been, he wanted it desperately. “I think so. I always wanted a big family and it would be easier to add another child now while I’m at home already with Liam.”
“That’s true.” Lizzie reached for his hand. “I always wanted to have more than one child.”
“So, if you’re not pregnant now—“
“—We will start consciously trying.” Lizzie’s heart skipped a beat at the thought.
William closed the distance between them and kissed her tenderly. “I love you, Lizzie.”
Hands entwined, they went back downstairs to visit with the rest of their family until everyone else went to bed and they could slip out without arousing suspicion. Their plan was thwarted however, when Gigi’s water broke a short time after that and everyone jumped into action. The baby was coming.
Hours later, they entered Gigi’s hospital room together, eager to meet their new niece.
“She’s beautiful,” Lizzie remarked, gazing at the tiny infant in Matthew’s arms. It was hard to remember Liam being that small.
“Isn’t she?” Matthew was seated on the bed next to Gigi, who had one arm around him, forming a distinct family unit.
“Breathtaking.” William bent to kiss his sister on the forehead. “Great work, Gigi.”
“Thanks, William.” Gigi smiled up at him. “Would you like to hold her.”
William nodded and Matthew gingerly passed him the baby.
“You need to support her head,” Lizzie told him softly, helping him get his elbow tucked under the baby’s neck. “That’s it.”
As William stared down at his niece with awe stamped across his face, Lizzie surveyed the scene with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it reminded her that he had never had this opportunity with Liam, but on the other hand, it affirmed their decision to try for another baby. She unconsciously grazed a hand over her abdomen. Unless she already was pregnant.
“Have you named her yet?” William asked, trying to distract himself from remembering that he had never held Liam in his arms when he was this small. That he hadn’t been there the day Liam had been born.
Gigi glanced up at Matthew and exchanged a warm smile. Deciding on a name had been easy once she’d been born. “We’ve decided to call her Claire Anne Hastings.” Gigi watched the emotion that passed over her brother’s face at the mention of their mother’s name.
“It’s perfect,” he told her, turning his attention back to his niece. “Hi, Claire, I’m your Uncle William.”
His niece yawned, stretching out a small fist and smacking her lips together softly.
“I think she’s hungry,” he said, carefully placing his niece in his sister’s arms. His own arms suddenly felt a lot emptier than they had before. He glanced at Lizzie and she immediately came to his side, clasping their hands together.
A short while later, they left to return to the house, and to Liam, stopping on the way to pick up a pregnancy test. When they arrived at the de Bourgh house, they found Mrs. Bennet in the kitchen with all three of her grandchildren.
She looked up as they entered and smiled at them. “How was Gigi? She seemed tired when I left a few hours ago.”
“She was great. The baby is beautiful.”
“Yes, she is. And Gigi did so well. She was so strong.” Mrs. Bennet eyed her daughter shrewdly. “Speaking of tired, you both look exhausted. Go upstairs and get some rest. I have these three under control.” She gestured to her grandchildren. All three were contentedly eating (and making a mess). Ella and Liam were making faces at each other and laughing.
“That would be great, Mom. Thanks.” They said goodbye to Liam (who barely noticed) and made their way back upstairs.
Once in their room, they glanced at each other for a moment, before Lizzie dug the test out of her purse. “Ready?”
William nodded, butterflies dancing in his stomach.
“Okay.” Lizzie pulled the little plastic test out of the box. “I’ll be right back.”
The minute or so that she was in the bathroom felt like an eternity, and when she came out, his pulse was pounding so hard he wondered if she could hear it.
“Now we wait?” he asked as she set her phone and the test down on a bedside table.
“Yes. Now we wait.” Lizzie remembered the wait for Liam’s results and how nervous she’d been. William reached for her hand as they sat down on the bed, and she clung to it. The wait was definitely easier with him there.
As they waited, William’s thoughts were all over the place. He thought about how much they had been through in the past year, how much had changed. A year ago, he had still been imprisoned in Guatemala, and Lizzie had been a single mother contemplating the possibility of having her missing husband declared dead. And now, here they were, together, with the possibility of a new life before them.
The past year had been hard on both of them, and they both still had their personal demons to fight, but they had made huge progress in rebuilding a life together after all the horrors they had faced in the past four years. It had taken time, but he and Liam had forged a bond that William cherished dearly. He and Lizzie had overcome many of the barriers between them and had come out of it strong and unified. Liam was growing and changing on a near daily basis, continually astounding them both with his intelligence and wit. They had become a family, and whether that family was about to increase or not, William was happier than he’d thought he could possibly be.
The timer went off, and Lizzie and William looked at each other, anticipation thick between them. Lizzie’s hand shook as she picked up the test. She was almost afraid to know.
She took a deep breath and held the test so she and William could both see.
It was positive. They were going to have another baby.
Lizzie’s grip on his hand tightened and she turned to William, happy tears swimming in her eyes as she offered him a small smile. Unable to contain his joy any longer, William laughed, then opened his arms and engulfed Lizzie in a warm, loving hug. There were many unknowns ahead of them, but they’d face them together, and they would be okay.
End Part Three
I started working on this story not long after Christmas. Roughly a week after the final chapter of Uncharted went up, but I'd had the idea for a while after dreaming it a few months before. The idea then haunted me and I kept dreaming about it until finally I started writing. All nearly 85,000 words of this story were written, revised and edited within the past month and I absolutely could not have done it without the help of the follows sparkling snowflakes:
erinwert - Aside from being my chief cheerleader, and a very strong supporter of my bringing this fic, and all of its angst into existence, Erin has been as much a part of the journey for this fic as I have. She has been helping me with it from day one, brainstorming with me, spending countless hours texting or G+ hanging out with me to hash out plot points, researching all kinds of weird details for me so I could focus on writing, reading and rereading the story as it was in progress, offering suggestions for tweaks and improvements, encouraging me when I hit trouble spots. She even dealt with more than one breakdown from me as I got stuck on a plot point and when I lost the bulk of my fic planning due to a server failure on the service I used, she spent half of her day off recreating it from a screenshot so I could keep writing.
Erin was also instrumental in the development and organization of the playlists. The playlists started because when I hit PART TWO I realized that music would help get me in the emotional place I needed to be in so I could write ALL THAT EMOTION day after day. Together we gathered songs and as we went on we eventually realized we could create a playlist for each section. It was mostly Erin who sorted out the order and which songs should be in which section and then later suggested the titles and lyrics for each chapter. As you can tell by the chapter titles and the fic title, this story was very strongly influenced by music and Erin was instrumental in shaping that. Seriously this fic and the playlists would be nowhere near as developed, and I would be nowhere near sanity if not for Erin. Thank you, Erin. I hope you know how very much I love and appreciate you.
missclaudiaar - Claudia spent more hours than I can fathom reading through the manuscript for this story and picking out every comma error, oddly worded sentence, and word that I spelled the Canadian way (even when she wasn't feeling well). She also spent many, many nights texting with me about the story, long before she read a word of it, helping me refine little details here and there (out of context), cheering me on as I wrote and helping to keep me motivated even in the times when I was grumpy and tired. She is also Matthew's biggest fan and her ALL CAPS COMMENTS about him never ceased to make me smile. Thank you for giving the time that you did to this, especially this past week. It's been insane and you've been awesome and I love you.
mamaleh6994 - Kelsey was also an instrumental part of this story, reading it through for me when it was nearly complete to help me know how the story worked as a whole and to make sure it made sense even to someone who did not know the outcome the way Erin and Claudia did. She offered some incredibly helpful feedback and pointed out some things that were missing. With part 3, she became even more integral, suggesting places and ways to improve on the final chapters to make them even more satisfying and complete. This fic is better because of her. <3 Thank you so much Kelsey. Especially this past week I would not have survived without you and your deep, abiding love of William, Lizzie and Baby Liam! <3
ahundredteas - Becca, beautiful independent cupcake that she is, voluntarily created the banner and all of the playlist covers that go with this story. She also supported and cheered me on through the writing of this story on many occasions and put up with me making all sorts of vague references without ever actually telling her anything of substance. She's, quite simply, the best! Becca I love and adore you. Thank you for always being so generous, talented and supportive. You make me better at all the things.
Honourable mentions to my sister and my friend rumpelsnorcack who both helped me go over every bit of dialog from Liam in part 3 to help make him sound more like an actual 3 year old. Thanks to both you and your little ones for helping to make Liam seem more real.