“Pride and Prejudice is the greatest of Jane Austen’s novels,” Caroline Buford, a prim and perfectly coiffed blonde, asserted in absolute tones, an affected twist to her lips, “so if we are to read one of her books, it should be Pride and Prejudice.”
“Perhaps Pride and Prejudice is the most beloved of Austen’s novels,” Alison Bateman countered, “but many Austen scholars prefer Persuasion. Besides, who hasn’t read Pride and Prejudice?”
Several of the women seated around the mahogany dining room table looked at each other guiltily. Alison wore her disbelief without any attempt to conceal it, her jaw dropping in astonishment.
“I’ve seen the films,” one finally acknowledged.
“Colin Firth was the sexiest thing PBS had ever shown before. I called my mom from college to beg her to send Betty White a donation,” said another.
“I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and saw the movie,” a third contributed. “My daughter wanted to see it,” she added, a bit sheepishly.
Alison looked despairingly at the well-read ladies who comprised her book group, wondering how they somehow missed Austen. “If Davies’ film so impressed you, how did you not follow up with a trip to the bookstore?” No one could respond. She suppressed her bewilderment and smiled with as much graciousness as she could muster across the table at Caroline, who sat smirking in her self-satisfied manner. How can I discuss this book without calling the creature Miss Bingley? she thought, broadening her smile while saying to the group, “It had better be Pride and Prejudice then, lest any of you are ever called to account for the glaring gap in your education.” Her teasing tone did not disparage or shame, and most of the ladies laughed at the prospect. “I’m due for a reread anyway. It’s been nearly a year.”
“How many times have you read it, Ali?”
“No idea. I stopped counting years ago. Maybe fifty?”
“When do you find the time to read anything else?”
“I’m not entirely sure, but I manage.”
“It is not the quantity that counts but the quality of the reading,” Caroline said. “I suggest we use David. M. Shepard’s wonderful annotated edition. Do you have a copy, Alison?”
“I do not.” She had read his annotated Northanger Abbey and loved it, but she could not bear to replace the old and tattered volume of Pride and Prejudice she had been reading since high school. It looked like she would now be forced into it, which was probably just as well for the poor book was falling apart. Still, she was reluctant to do so. It was like getting a new puppy while the dog beloved by the family for years was sick and dying.
“I think it’s the best edition currently available, especially as so many in the group are less familiar with Austen’s world and writing than we are, Ali.”
“Agreed,” she ceded the point. It was no use haggling with the woman. These days she saved her energy for arguing with her daughters, and Caroline Buford wasn’t worth it, no matter how annoying she was. She seemed intent on setting herself up as the Austen expert in the group, alongside Alison, of course, who as the only rabid Janeite could not be overlooked. This was a sure harbinger of her intention to control the conversation, as usual. “I look forward to hearing the impressions of those new to Austen.”
“I’m a bit daunted by the language,” one acknowledged. “Nineteenth century novels are always a challenge to me. I just can’t relate to the characters. Did people really speak like that?”
Alison sat up straight and donned an exceedingly proper expression. “It will be most felicitous to learn whom amongst you can overcome the linguistic archaisms to discover what excessive diversion Austen has to offer. May that I vicariously rediscover the joy of that very first introduction through yours,” she concluded to appreciative laughter.
“Our expectations are unreasonably high of the book that inspired the names of your large family.”
Alison’s smile grew forced as she fought against that intolerable tinge of regret that assaulted her whenever questioned about her daughters’ names. “It really wasn’t intentional, I promise.”
All the women knew the story. Their children attended the same high school, and the mother of five girls is necessarily well-known, particularly when she’s a reliable PTA volunteer with pretty and popular children, like Alison.
The names began in total innocence. Tom's mother died of cancer while she was pregnant with Jane. It was not a favorite name of Alison's. She wanted to call her daughter Emily. She had gone to school with a Jane and hated her violently, but how could she deny the request when Tom made it on the heels of his mother’s passing? A few years later, when she was again pregnant, she joked that if it were a girl she should be named Elizabeth, just like the best-friend sisters from her favorite book. As it was a name she actually liked, the jest became reality. Then, when her mother Mary died and she became pregnant once more with a girl, the connection to Jane Austen's characters had to carry on. No one could find serious fault with her thus far, but it really should have stopped there. She never wanted more than three children.
But Tom so longed for a boy, and she truly had wanted to give him one. One more child. Alison was certain before she could even confirm her pregnancy that something was different. She had never before been so tired or so ill. Her first ultrasound confirmed the truth: two heartbeats. A few months more and they would know the genders. The mystery was rather a given. More girls, of course. In a moment of pique, Alison insisted they must be Kitty and Lydia, and what began as a perverted whim of pregnancy prevailed, far outlasting the hormones that must have inspired such foolishness. The doctors insisted on scheduling a cesarean, and while sliced open with her organs lying beside her, they tied her tubes. There would be no boy. There would be no more children, period. Five was more than enough.
The book club broke up amidst snide jokes from Caroline regarding the remarkable resemblance between the twins and their namesakes in the book. “Just wait until you read what happens to Lydia! You’ll understand why Alison keeps the twins on such a short leash.”
“There are many lessons to be learned from Pride and Prejudice, one of which is how not to parent,” Alison replied somewhat tartly, thinking of what the twins had told her about their classmate, Gabby Buford, going to college parties. Such choices put her in far more danger of falling for a rogue like Wickham, the villain of Pride and Prejudice, than Alison’s girls. She tried to warn Caroline, who had dismissed as impossible the notion that her Gabby could ever be so deceptive. Maybe this rereading would make Caroline wake up to the dangers of being too lenient and indulgent. Maybe her previous reading wasn’t as astute as she boasted, for she had obviously failed to absorb the novel’s message.
“We cannot begin to compare the realities of our world with those of Austen’s. Consider the disparity between the genders and the rigidity of the class system! The nineteenth and twenty-first centuries really are incomparable,” Caroline countered.
“Do you really think so? I think human behavior is remarkably consistent despite the trappings of time and place. Why should Austen be more popular than ever now if modern readers are unable relate to her characters?”
“It is fantasy, just like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. Readers want to be immersed in a new world.”
A retort froze on Alison’s tongue. Such a ridiculous statement really did not deserve her attention. What was fantasy but the reflection of reality? She let it go, absentmindedly saying her goodbyes. She had too much on her mind to dwell on the inconsequential.
Sunday was her anniversary. Twenty-five years of life as Mrs. Tom Bateman; well, twenty and a half. For the first several years of her marriage, when she was still working in marketing, she maintained the use of her maiden name, Lowery, but then legally changed it when pregnant with Jane. Tom said it would be easier for the children, and so it had proved. It was not the first of the many compromises she made over the years on behalf of her family. The name change was preceded by retirement from work so she could be home to raise the baby. Her colleagues had bemoaned the decision, warning of the difficulty in returning to the business world after a prolonged absence. She had smiled and demurred. Tom’s salary was enough for them to live comfortably, though not luxuriously. Of course, more children meant more money was needed, and her easygoing husband, who had never been competitive before, found ambition in providing for his family, moving up in his brokerage firm until he became a senior VP. By the time all five girls were in school, he made more than enough money to preclude any necessity for Alison to return to the workforce. Her time was better spent getting involved with the girls’ school, a prestigious Baltimore preparatory institution on which they were destined to spend far more money than most parents did on college. If she considered the hours she had volunteered at a billable rate … but no. She would not dwell on the staggering sum. Her children were the recipients of a phenomenal education, and that was priceless. She might sometimes miss what was or might have been, but she could not regret the choices she had made. Her life was, by all reckoning, a charmed one, and she was acutely grateful for it.
As she drove home that night in her husband’s BMW coupe – he had taken her far more practical Volvo SUV to pick up Elizabeth from the airport – she thought wearily on the approaching celebration. What had apparently begun as a surprise party (Kitty’s idea) had not remained secret for long. Little did in the Bateman household. The youngest girls, in their initial enthusiasm, used up all their allowance and savings booking a room for the event. The beginning of the school year the following week and their subsequent lack of money for school clothes first caused an argument, then tears, then sent both girls running with their complaints to Mom, each eager to detail their wrongs before the other had her say. By the time Alison had sorted the squabble down to the root of the problem, the entire celebration and its planning had necessarily become her own responsibility. New jeans were had by all, but to the question of why the twins had chosen to have the party on their anniversary when it was the same weekend as the school’s Homecoming, she never received a satisfactory reply. Alison was touched by the sentiment that inspired her daughters, but she was still stuck planning a party she never wanted with money that would have been better spent on a trip for two to Europe. She and Tom could certainly use some time to themselves.
Maybe it isn’t too late? Her thoughts punctuated the sound of the turn signal as she waited at an intersection for the light to change. Perhaps there was some last-minute deal she could discover online for a short getaway if she could only find the time to browse. New England would be perfect. They could drive; they would take the coupe and find some romantic historic inn on the coast to spend a long weekend. It had been years since they escaped on their own.
The house was largely quiet when she arrived. The garage, empty. Sure enough, when Alison checked her phone, she saw a message that Elizabeth’s flight had been delayed. They would be there soon.
She said hello to Mary, who was playing some sort of a game on the computer in the kitchen, and peeked in on Lydia and Kitty watching TV in the den. Returning to the kitchen, she opened a bottle of Bordeaux.
“What are you working on?”
“I’m writing a mod for our MMORPG.”
“Oh. Of course, you are.” Alison had little clue what her daughter meant but made no further inquiries, experience having taught her that she would be no more enlightened following Mary’s explanation than she was at present.
Lights in the driveway indicated Tom’s return. Mary saved her thing, whatever it was, and Alison called to the girls to come greet their sister. Jane, who was in her first year of law school at Northwestern, would fly in tomorrow for the party and leave early on Monday, intending to return to Chicago in time for her first class. Elizabeth, in her final year as a psych undergrad at McGill, could remain a few days longer. She had made the arrangements with her professors at the start of the term, and as could be expected of Elizabeth, her homework would be completed before arrival, ensuring uninterrupted family time. Alison smiled in anticipation as she listened to the garage opening and the car doors slamming. The great thing about the anniversary party and why, despite all its hassles, Alison really didn’t mind having it was the excuse to gather all the girls together at home, no common occurrence these days. With Mary off to college the following year, it was sure to become even more rare.
She didn’t immediately register the meaning of a third, unknown voice echoing from the garage. Even when a young man entered the kitchen with a suitcase in each hand, it didn’t occur to her that he might be someone of significance, not until Lydia put her thumb and forefinger between her pursed lips and released a piercing catcall of a whistle, followed by a demanding, “Who’s that?” It was then she noticed Elizabeth’s uncertain smile. Tom avoided her eyes as he entered behind the young couple, and yes, they were definitely a couple. Their body language revealed all.
Alison suppressed her curiosity and embraced her daughter. “My dear Lizzy! How I missed you!”
“Hi, Mom,” she said while still being hugged, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”
Alison looked between her daughter’s shining eyes, her husband’s face still tilted in evasion, and the smiling young man before her. She noticed he was handsome. Perhaps too handsome. She looked back at her daughter in expectation.
“This is George, Mom. George Worthford.”
Alison’s brain flickered in recognition. “Oh yes! The assistant teacher who was so helpful in your anthropology class.”
“We met in class, Mrs. Bateman,” the young man spoke for himself, “but I like to think we have become much closer since then.” He gazed down at Elizabeth fondly. She gazed back and reached for George’s hand.
Giggles broke the silence. “Is Lizzy allowed to date her teacher?” Kitty asked.
“I wonder if Mr. Jackson is too old for me?” followed Lydia. Mr. Jackson, the boy’s lacrosse coach and a teacher of level one Spanish, was universally acknowledged to be ridiculously good-looking.
As Elizabeth greeted and lovingly chided her sisters, Alison took too large a gulp of wine. “Where is home, George?” she asked, suppressing the urge to choke.
“I’m originally from LA, Mrs. Bateman.”
“Please, call me Alison or Ali. Do you have family in the area?”
“No. Lizzy invited me to stay with you.”
Elizabeth turned to look at her guiltily. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Of course not,” she lied. “I’m guessing you plan to join us for our little party on Sunday?”
“Little?” Mary mumbled. “You invited half the town.”
“I found a great deal on a last-minute ticket, and since it’s a buffet I didn’t think another person would matter to the headcount,” Elizabeth answered on George’s behalf.
“No,” Alison acknowledged. How last-minute was this ticket? she wondered, biting back the urge to ask Lizzy why she couldn’t have at least sent a text to warn her. “One more person will not make much difference. Besides, someone else is bound to be a no-show.” She glanced around aimlessly, searching for a safe topic of conversation. Tom had already disappeared upstairs. Coward. “Are you kids hungry?”
“We grabbed bagels at the airport,” Lizzy explained. “They just don’t taste as good in Canada.”
“Coffee?” she asked helplessly.
“Wine, if you don’t mind,” George said with a grin at the bottle.
“Certainly. One for you, Lizzy, as well?”
“Please,” she replied with a bit of a preen, as her mom rarely offered alcohol to her children, even those over twenty-one.
“Can I have a glass, too?” Lydia asked, causing Kitty to resume giggling.
“No, you may not, and it’s almost eleven o’clock. Don’t you two need a good night’s rest?”
“But it’s Friday!” Kitty complained.
Lydia nodded vigorously. “It’s bad enough we had to stick around to wait for Lizzy when everyone else is at Maddie’s tonight. Why do we need to go to bed early?”
“It’s a busy weekend, girls. You’ll be up half the night tomorrow, and we have the anniversary party on Sunday. You need some time to recuperate. Besides, it’s not like I expect you to be asleep in an hour. You can chat with your friends for a while if you like. Just get washed up first and settle down.”
The youngest Bateman girls shuffled off with hugs goodnight to their sisters and mother and insinuating giggles for George.
“You’re a strict mother, Ali,” said the stranger. “When I was their age, I wasn’t expected home until midnight, and that was on weekdays!”
Alison was trying hard not to dislike the man, but he was making it difficult. “We all have our own approaches to raising children, George. I like to think of mine as balanced. Do you think I am too strict with you girls?” she asked Mary and Elizabeth.
“Don’t answer,” Lizzy warned. “It’s a trap. No answer you give is right.”
“Wrong answer.” Alison smirked.
“Now I’m caught,” Lizzy bantered in her usual manner. It eased the anxiety Alison had experienced ever since her daughter walked in. “I promise you are a perfectly rational parent. Not too strict, not too lax. The proof is in the pudding. Just look to your daughters for evidence of your stellar parenting.”
Alison laughed. “It’s fortunate that I don’t seem to have ruined any of you, yet. There is still time.”
“Then you had best get on it if you want to do a really good job, though I’m sure the twins will meet you halfway. Lydia, in particular.”
“She does keep me on my toes, for which I’m rather grateful. I’d hate to get complacent.”
Lizzy rolled her eyes. “Little chance of that. I’ve never known you to slack off, Mom.” She turned to Mary. “Are you going to the dance, too?”
She shrugged. “I might stop in with some friends. There’s a party in Towson that we’re definitely going to hit first. I’ll bring a dress with me in case I need to change.”
“Not a college party, Mary?” Alison asked. “You can wait until next year to attend plenty of those.”
“Like there couldn’t be a high school party going on in the entire town.”
“At whose house?”
Alison thought about the name. “Is his mother on the fundraising committee?”
“He goes to Tilman.”
“His father owns the car dealership?”
“That’s the one.”
“Weren’t you friends with his sister, Lizzy?”
“I was, and if he’s anything like he was four years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a gaming party, not the debauched affair you seem to envision.”
Mary blushed and glanced shyly at their visitor. “So what if it is?” she muttered defensively.
“I’m just explaining to Mom that she hasn’t anything to worry about. You ought to be grateful to your big sister.” Lizzy smiled. Mary hugged her a bit begrudgingly, said goodnight, and escaped to her room.
“It is getting late.” Alison looked at Elizabeth questioningly. There was no use beating around the bush, so she asked rather bluntly, “Where do you intend for George to sleep?”
“Lizzy said there was a sofa bed in the basement,” George quickly put in. Too quickly. Alison wished they would stop answering for each other. “That suits me just fine. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
Unlikely, she thought. “It’s no trouble. We can even do one better than the sofa bed. Put him in Jane’s room, Lizzy. It’s freshly made up.” And right next to mine.
Elizabeth frowned, “And where will Jane sleep when she gets home?”
“She can sleep in your room with you. It’s just for two nights. How long will you be with us, George?”
“He is booked back to Montreal on the same flight as me,” Lizzy replied, to her mother’s increasing annoyance.
“I’m sure George will be more comfortable in a proper bed for four nights than in the basement. You’ll show him up?”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Ali. I’m sorry I came upon you unexpectedly.”
“You’re welcome.” She smiled, sincerely appreciating the belated acknowledgement. “It is good to have you home, Lizzy.” Hugging her daughter once more, she said goodnight, being sure to take the bottle of wine, still two-thirds full, with her.
Alison could hear Kitty and Lydia laughing in their bedroom as she climbed the stairs. She walked down the hall, turning on the light in Jane’s room along her way to the master bedroom. Tom was inside, busy at work on the winterized patio that served as his office. She shut the door and locked it behind her.
“Do you want a glass of wine?” she called.
“Just a minute, hon. I have to finish this email to Gordon.”
She stood in the office door. “We need to talk, Tom. About this George …”
“I know, I abandoned you in there,” he said while still typing. “I’m sorry, Ali, but if I don’t get the loose ends on this deal wrapped up now so the Californians can sign before going home for the weekend, we’re going to have to start from scratch on Monday. It should only take a few more minutes.”
“I think I’ll have a bath.” She sighed. “Come get me when you’re done.”
“Just five more minutes,” he muttered, knitting his brows in concentration.
Alison replenished her glass and took both it and the bottle into the bathroom. While the bath filled, she located her copy of Pride and Prejudice in its usual spot by the bedside. It was in precarious condition, particularly for reading in the bath, but she risked it anyway, climbing in to luxuriate, drink, and lose herself in Regency-era Hertfordshire. When Tom finally came in nearly an hour later, the water was cold, her skin was pruned, the bottle was empty, and he had to take the book away in order to convince her to get out of the tub and go to bed. They never did discuss George.
"That's my shirt! I bought it at the concert. You weren't even there!"
"Whatever, Kitty! You wore my skirt last week, and I didn't make such a big deal about it."
"But I was going to wear it today!"
“You were not! You’re just saying that to get your way.”
Not yet! Alison prayed, pulling the covers more firmly around her shoulders and squeezing her eyes shut determinedly. If she were lucky, her dream of sitting on the deck of a mammoth cruise ship and drinking some outlandish tropical cocktail might resume.
"Mom!" There was a thump on the bedroom door. "Lydia's wearing my new t-shirt! Make her give it back!"
No! Turquoise waters and muscled pool boys were already fading from her grasp. Reason dictated that she might as well open her eyes, but they refused to budge.
"Mom!" More knocking. "Kitty is always borrowing my clothes without asking, and I never freak out at her. It isn't fair!"
She heard her husband sigh and felt him move on the bed. They had spent a fortune on premium memory foam only to realize that it was his shifting of the covers that woke her in the night. Unfortunately, the bed had a twenty-year warranty on it, so she was probably stuck with it for another fifteen years. Blindly, she clutched her corner of the quilt, so his turning wrenched the sheet off her instead. Now the bed will be harder to make. The peevish thought brought an end to her tropical fantasy more effectively than all else combined, but to settle the matter once and for all, Tom laid a hand on her shoulder and gave it a tiny shake.
"Ali! Wake up, won't you? The girls need you."
A chorus of thumps and "Moms!" bore witness to his words.
"Why can't you help?" she groaned.
"They are calling for you," he retorted with a yawn, stretch, and scratch. “If I try to help, it will only make it worse. This is your territory.” He kissed her fondly before stumbling towards the bathroom.
Her tongue was thick and foul and her head pounded as she stared at the ceiling, listening to her daughters holler.
"Mom!" the twins shouted in unison. Alison sat up, donned her bathrobe, and threw open the door to confront her daughters.
"Girls!" she cried over their simultaneous accounts, which assaulted her at once. "It's not even eight o'clock, and a Saturday, too! What are you even doing awake?"
Both girls stared at her, slack jawed. They were not identical, but mannerisms and habits made their likeness remarkable. Kitty, the elder by less than a minute, was slightly shorter, her hair not as dark, and her eyes rounder than Lydia's. They were both healthy and attractive teenage girls, and Alison was proud of the image they presented. If only they didn't insist on acting so dunderheaded, and darned if that mischievous smile belonging to her youngest didn't conjure up instant images of Julia Sawalha as Lydia Bennet! Now, as both stared at her incredulously, Alison knew at once that she had forgotten something important.
"Mom!" Kitty cried in horror. "It's Homecoming!"
"Oh, of course, it is." Alison sighed, relieved the day's event required little from her. “It totally slipped my mind.” All she needed to do was smile and take pictures and play supportive momma. Then she frowned. "Why are you up so early?"
"Because we're going to the airport first, of course!"
"I forgot about Jane," Alison moaned. “Tom!" she yelled. "Are you coming to the airport?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” he called out.
“Then you’ll have to drive!" she hollered back. Turning to her daughters she said, “Is Mary awake? She wanted to go, too.”
“She’s in the bathroom,” said Kitty. “What about my shirt?”
“Give it to me.” Alison reached out and took the disputed item from Lydia. “Shall I get the scissors and cut it in half, Solomon style?”
“You wouldn’t!” Kitty exclaimed. “That’s not fair!”
“Then you had both better find something else to wear. You can have your shirt back in a week, Kitty. The same goes for anything else you squabble over this weekend. There is too much going on for such nonsense.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both replied.
“Now go get dressed. I want you both ready to go in twenty minutes. I’ll stay here with Lizzy and her, um, George.”
The girls burst into giggles.
“I got up to get a drink of water around one, and I could hear them laughing in the basement,” Kitty volunteered.
“Wasn’t George supposed to sleep in Jane’s room, Mom?” Lydia asked smugly. “He must be a very light sleeper. The bed doesn’t look like it’s actually been slept in.”
“Enough, you two,” Alison said firmly. “Hurry up now.” They scrambled down the hallway.
Alison wrapped her bathrobe tightly around her before walking to the bathroom the girls shared and knocking on the door. “Mary!” she called over the sound of the shower. “Dad will take you and the twins to the airport to get Jane. Be ready in twenty minutes.”
“You got it!” came the reply. Alison knew her middle daughter would be ready in half that time.
She proceeded further down the hall to Jane’s room. Sure enough, the coverlet was pulled back, but the sheets had all the appearance of being deliberately ruffled. She was pretty sure she knew where George Worthford had spent the night and resented the attempt at deception. She didn’t like to invade her daughters’ privacy, however, so it was with a slight feeling of guilt that she snuck down the back stairs. They connected to the kitchen through a butler’s pantry, allowing her to descend through the entire house without observation from the main living areas. The basement, which they had finished some years before, looked reasonably unused, but the strange ordering of the throw pillows told her someone had definitely been down there. No one else in the family ever put them back the way Alison preferred.
She found the culprits in the kitchen. George made himself at home behind the counter, from where a distinct smell of burnt bacon emanated.
“Good morning, Mom!” Lizzy said cheerfully. “George is making breakfast for everyone.”
“I enjoy cooking,” he said in what Alison considered a rather self-satisfied tone.
“So I noticed.” The scent was distinctly unappetizing, but she tried to suppress her annoyance that her center-cut, organic bacon had been subjected to such treatment. This was a family weekend, and she did not want to let this infiltrator spoil it. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much time everyone has to eat a big breakfast. Tom and the girls have to leave for the airport soon.” She poured herself a cup of coffee from the full pot, eyeing the thin brew with chagrin. It was far weaker than she preferred. George must have made that, too.
“Aren’t you going?” Lizzy asked, and Alison was disturbed to detect some disappointment in her voice. Like I’m going to leave you two alone in the house!
“I didn’t sleep well, and there is a ton to do. I thought I’d stay behind and get organized.” She sipped the watery coffee and tried not to grimace.
“How do you like the coffee, Ali?” asked the ersatz chef.
“George put cinnamon in it,” Lizzy volunteered.
“Very interesting. I appreciate all your efforts in the kitchen, George, but I like my coffee stronger than this. If you make it again while with us, perhaps you could up the quantity?”
“Of course! I just didn’t want to overwhelm the flavor of the cinnamon. Don’t worry about the food. I can make breakfast sandwiches, and the family can eat them on the go.”
“Great,” she said, forcing a smile. Now her car would reek of burnt pork, too. “I’d better go check on the progress upstairs.” She would wait until everyone else was gone before calling the couple out on the previous evening’s sleeping arrangements.
She discovered Mary tying her shoes and ready to roll, Kitty and Lydia still trying to decide what to wear, and Tom in his underwear in front of the computer.
“The LA office has a bunch of issues with the contract. Two of them are coming into work today to view revisions. I have to get it done before noon. I’m sorry, hon, but can you drive? Then I can work on it in the car.”
“I wasn’t planning on going.”
He stopped typing.
Glad something can get his attention, she thought.
“Not going? You don’t want to meet Jane? We haven’t seen her since August.”
“Of course, I want to see her, but the car will be stuffed if we all go, and someone should stay behind to supervise Lizzy and her, um, friend.”
“She is an adult, Ali. You have to let her live her own life. It’s not like you’re there to keep an eye on her when she’s at school.”
“Ask Mary to drive.”
He laughed. “That will never work! You think I can work with her behind the wheel? It’s far too frightening.”
“You’re the one who taught the girls to drive.”
“Mary was a hopeless case. She’s too cautious.”
“You’ll wish for such problems when it’s the twins’ turn.”
“Timidity behind the wheel is maybe even worse than aggression. Especially on the beltway at rush hour.”
“Maybe you should just stay home, then. I’m pretty sure Lizzy spent the bulk of the night in the basement with George. We have impressionable teens in the house. Such behavior is inappropriate, and of course, Kitty and Lydia are fully aware of what went on last night. Someone has to have a talk with Lizzy about what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
Tom balked. “Can’t we do it later? I’d hate to wait a minute longer than necessary to see Jane, and you know you feel the same way.”
“Fine. I’ll drive. We’ll have to put up the third row and clear out Mary’s field hockey gear. She’s ready, so I’ll ask her to take care of it. We’d all better hurry up or we’ll be late.” She began to yank drawers open in haste, pulling out clothes for herself and her husband. With drill sergeant-like commands at the twins, the bulk of the Bateman clan was soon in the Volvo, smelly egg sandwiches in hand, and pulling out the short drive of their Baltimore County home. Lizzy and George waved them off, a bit too happily for Alison’s comfort.
Tom busied himself on his laptop. In the back seat, the girls argued.
“Zac Efron is way cuter than Liam Hemsworth,” Kitty asserted.
“How can you possibly think so? Liam is ten times better looking,” Lydia countered.
“What do think, Mary?” Lydia asked.
“Who?” she replied, looking up from her phone.
Alison watched both twins in the rearview mirror as they rolled their eyes in unison.
“What do you think, Mom?”
“Who do you think is hotter?”
“Between Liam Hemsworth and Zac Efron? They’re practically clones. I can barely tell one from the other.” This sparked a new argument.
Alison watched her husband typing at lightning speed, totally oblivious to the cacophony behind him. She marveled at his ability to shut them all out. Her head ached from the noise, lack of caffeine, and a lingering hangover.
"Look out, Mom!" someone shrieked, and Alison only saw the other vehicle in time to expect the impact. She heard the screams, instinctively shielding her head with her arms. Then came the sound of metal crunching and glass shattering. She saw Tom’s body jerk beside her. The vision was surreal, like a slow-motion film. She had a moment to wonder at its oddity before losing herself in the nothingness of unconsciousness.
"Mama! Are you injured?"
Kitty? Alison thought, but the voice sounded strange. She would not open her eyes to see who it was, in deference to the pounding in her brain. She felt like she was lying in the grass but had no notion of or interest in how she came to be there. The ache in her head overrode all other concerns.
"La! It is a miracle any of us is alive at all! I do think my whole life flashed before my eyes! How exciting!"
"Lydia! Do but think! Our mother is unconscious! Her survival, in question. You must temper your spirits to the occasion."
Alison’s eyelids fluttered, and a shock of light pierced her head. She groaned.
"She is moving!"
Definitely not Kitty. Consciousness would intrude despite her agony. Her mind would not relinquish the notion that the voices were almost familiar, but something about them was off. And where was Tom? She forced her eyes open, braving the blinding light to perceive three oddly bulbous forms gathered above her. If these were her daughters, then what had happened to their heads?
"There, Mary! You see, she is not dead, so now you can admit that a carriage accident when it does not injure you, of course, is quite thrilling! I wish we might do it again."
“It was a surprisingly harmless carriage accident with neither horses nor carriage suffering any detriment.”
“Carriage?” Alison questioned groggily.
"Mama? Can you hear me?" Alison focused all her willpower on making her eyes open despite the crushing light. A teenage girl dressed like a character from a period drama came into focus. The feared cranial deformity was nothing more than a bonnet.
"Don't try to sit up, ma'am," a male voice emanated from a new figure, leaning over her from behind the girl. "Johnny is on his way for help."
Alison wanted to oblige, but first she must know what had become of her husband. “Tom?” she murmured. “Where is he?”
“Mr. Bennet’s been sent for, ma’am,” the man replied reassuringly, and she gave in to her body’s demands and allowed herself to close her eyes.
"Oh! My dear Mrs. Bennet! How could such a thing come to pass?" Alison heard a man’s voice exclaim, and she was roused to the unnerving sensation of strong arms lifting her from the ground.
“‘Twas a rut in the road, Sir William! Weren't there yesterday, and I'd swear on that!"
"No one holds you to blame, John. Carriage accidents happen all the time. ‘Tis no great mystery."
Alison wondered how she might possibly have been injured by a carriage on I-83. None of it made the slightest bit of sense.
Eyes still closed, Alison felt herself gingerly laid against a leather bench, her head supported by someone’s lavender-scented lap. She sighed with relief and prepared to fall back asleep, listening to a voice whisper, "It is but a short drive to Lucas Lodge, Mama. This will not take but a moment."
I'll take it, she thought, and drifted off, only to be lurched back into consciousness a moment later when the contraption conveying her began to move. "What the hell!" she cried, sitting up quickly, only to be forced to cradle her head while the world spun, jostled, and jolted all at once.
"Mama!" cried one scandalized lady while the other two giggled.
Before another word could be spoken, the dratted vehicle slammed to a halt, nearly knocking Alison off her precarious seat and onto the floor, but six ready arms grabbed at her in support.
"Thank you," she said gratefully, in a voice nothing like her own. Startled, she looked around at the padded box in which she sat with three oddly garbed strangers who kept calling her "Mama" in a lilting, staccato manner and wondered if she had lost her mind. She soon knew she had.
One wall of the vehicle disappeared in a shocking bolt of light, and a voice called out from it: "Ah! Mrs. Bennet! You look more yourself already. Let me help you down!" A hand reached out for her, like something out of a Korean horror film, soon followed by the distended nose and ruddy complexion of the most unfortunate looking man she had ever beheld. There was nothing else to do but scream.
The girls looked at her in surprise while the man's yellow smile fell with concern. "No, not quite yourself yet, I see. No need to fret! We shall have you restored in a moment. The lads will carry you into the house." He indicated two dirty-looking boys, the smell of whom she perceived the moment her eyes spotted them.
"I think I can walk now, thank you," she said shakily. With relief, she was allowed to step outside on her own.
"It was a carriage!" she exclaimed, looking about her in amazement. She stood upon a gravel driveway before a solidly Georgian house: perfectly balanced, almost identical to the one she had grown up in, but for the lack of a sunroom on one side, and not so dissimilar from the one she and Tom owned. Many of the houses in her neighborhood were of the same design, together presenting an impressive spectacle of suburban affluence, but they were set on one- to two-acre plots, not surrounded by such unabated land as this place. Nor did the chemically treated lawns of her youth ever sport sheep grazing upon them, only an occasional garden statue, never to be fazed by Chemlawn.
She turned around to see her three traveling companions scurrying out of the honest-to-goodness carriage — drawn by two horses, no less! She had only once been in a carriage before: a tourist trap in Central Park. The ladies before her wore muslin dresses with empire waistlines. She looked down at her own clothes and noticed with amazement the yards of brocade she sported. As with the smell of those filthy teenage boys, who were smiling at the young ladies, it took the observance of her eyes for her body to notice that something was jabbing her in the ribs, and that something must be a corset.
"Let us get you inside," said the man, taking her arm, from which she recoiled, and leading her into the house. At least he didn't smell of the stables, just body odor and stale clothing. She looked behind her to see one of the girls laughing at something one of the boys said and shuddered. No good can come of that flirtation, her motherly instincts warned, and she took a moment to pray that her girls knew better.
She was made comfortable on the sofa, or at least as much as possible on such a hard, unforgiving piece of furniture. The shrill lady, who seemed to be the horrible man’s wife, sent him in quest of a cold compress. She thanked the lady for the thought, especially that which banished the man.
"My dear Mrs. Bennet! I do hope you do not suffer any long-term distress from this day's work! It is a wonder you and the girls were not killed, and not a quarter mile from Lucas Lodge! How can such a thing happen? Do drink a glass of wine. I am sure it must benefit you!"
Alison accepted the proffered glass and sipped before saying in the strange voice, "I think there has been some mistake.” Way too disoriented to perceive the severity of her understatement, she continued, “Do you know where my husband and daughters are?"
"Your girls will be in at any moment, I am sure, and Mr. Bennet is at Longbourn, of course! He has been sent for. Never fear on that score. I shall also drop a quick note to Mrs. Phillips, shall I? She will want to know what has befallen you. It is too bad my Maria is not at home to entertain the Misses Bennet. We look forward to the return of our girls from Hunsford, do we not, my dear?"
Alison was on the verge of protesting that she did not know any of the names her hostess mentioned when sudden recognition kindled in her brain, quickly growing into a maelstrom. One of the young ladies now reappeared, dropping a quick curtsy before burying her nose in a book. From the outside, one of the others could be heard emitting a squeal of girlish laughter. Longbourn, Bennet, Lucas Lodge ... "Lady Lucas?" she asked tentatively.
"Yes?" the lady readily replied, looking at her expectantly.
Dear god! Alison thought. I think I'm Mrs. Bennet! The shock was enough to make her feel lightheaded again. It might be one thing to travel back in time, as unlikely as such an occurrence might be, but how was it possible for a person to be transported into a book? Ridiculous! Impossible! She must be insane. It was the only rational explanation.
It was upon drawing this conclusion that the two remaining young ladies burst into the room, stumbling upon each other and giggling. The tallest — perfect raven curls bouncing, rosy cheeks aglow, and a devious sparkle in her eye — homed in on Alison and announced in bold tones, "You shall never guess, Mama! Sir William's groom has a litter of puppies in the stable. May we go look at them? James says I might choose one to take home if I do not care for getting my skirts dirty, for which I do not give a jot."
My god! It's Lydia! Alison recognized her youngest's namesake with abject horror. Before her stood the most oblivious hoyden nineteenth century literature had to offer. "Oh! My poor nerves!" she exclaimed, much to her own dismay, closing her eyes and willing away the impossible scene.
Clearly her mind had come unhinged, reality and fantasy merging in a perfect Gordian knot. But Alison was not one to succumb to circumstances. Real or not, the weight of responsibility for Lydia Bennet descended upon her like an anvil on a coyote. She reopened her eyes, ready to confront five-and-a-half-plus feet of empowered teenager just itching to do something stupid.
"Mama, may we not go see the puppies?" she persisted with a laugh at such unaccustomed silence in her mother.
"You certainly may not!" She was relieved that her this-is-my-last-word-on-the-subject voice had just as much finality in the unfamiliar English tones.
Everyone stared in shock at such forcefulness from the permissive Mrs. Bennet, all but Lydia attributing such unusual behavior to the bump on her head. "But Mama — "
"Not another word!" Alison interrupted. "I may not understand all that is going on, but I do know that to allow you, of all creatures, to go off in the company of stable hands would be insanity." She was nearly yelling now, and the girl's lip began to tremble at such harsh treatment. Alison knew she was overreacting. She could blame the strain of her circumstances, but she acknowledged that her emotions carried all the vehemence of a devoted fangirl, irrationally angry at a fictional character, and pity for the apparently real person who stood before her smothered her frustration. "Forgive me,” she said, her tone softened. “The accident has rattled my nerves." She winced at her repetition of the last word while Lady Lucas nodded knowingly at the familiar complaint. Just because she was addled enough to believe that she was Mrs. Bennet did not mean she had to behave like her. "Perhaps I was in need of a good rattling if you thought I would consent to such an activity. However, I should not have raised my voice."
"Our actions should always be modulated as best befits our circumstance." Mary preened, in alt to see her mother check Lydia's immodesty. Alison glared at her, which caused the girl's posture to wilt. Her own Mary had similar tendencies when she was younger, setting herself up in moral superiority to the others. Alison had waged a campaign to squelch such behavior since it first materialized at the tender age of three, when Mary took to spying on and reporting her elder sisters' activities, both good and bad. It was only in recent years that Alison finally counted herself triumphant, a lesson in the benefits of persistence in parenting.
"Here is your tea, my dear," Lady Lucas exclaimed in relief as a servant entered bearing the tray. "Do sit back and rest yourself. I fear you are yet unrecovered."
Alison allowed herself to be administered to, as her head pounded ominously. The damp rag Sir William soon presented to her was not nearly cold enough to do the slightest good. She asked for ice, at which request her hostess balked. “I suppose we could send to Netherfield for some. They have the nearest ice house. It will take some time, however.”
Alison groaned, “Do not trouble yourselves.” What wouldn’t I give for a pill! she thought. Anything would do: ibuprofen, acetaminophen, Aleve. She was so accustomed to reaching into a cabinet and grabbing for a bevy of remedies, always at her beck and call. What on earth do these people do for pain? she wondered. Laudanum! The notion held some promise of relief, but it felt seriously inappropriate to just ask for some in the middle of a neighbor's drawing room. She hoped they had some at Longbourn, though she doubted it would do much more than dull her awareness of the pain. Longbourn! Even in her sorry state, she still experienced an excited thrill at the notion, though more pressing concerns would prevail. What if she had a concussion? Carefully, she sat up and looked around. There was a large mirror across the room, reflecting the fireplace. Alison rose and went to it.
There she confronted a strange face surrounded by stiffly curled hair and a veritable halo of a hat. Shaking off the disorienting effects of the unfamiliar reflection, she checked the dilation of her pupils. Mary came to her and asked in a hushed tone, "Mama? What are you doing?"
Alison was holding her thumb and forefinger around her left eye in order to pry it open. One look at Mary told her this behavior was utterly alien to her company. "It is possible to gauge the severity of a bump to the head by the dilation of the eye pupils. If one is large and the other small, the situation is more severe. Mine, as you can see, are the same size."
"Did Mr. Jones tell you so?" Mary questioned, seemingly astonished that her mother would have any specific medical knowledge beyond the most common cures.
"No," Alison succinctly replied. "I think I am now recovered enough to be jostled along home. Thank you, Lady Lucas, Sir William, for your hospitality. Come along, girls."
"But you are to stay the morning!" Sir William protested. "I have ordered a nuncheon prepared, and Mr. Bennet will be on his way here!"
"You are very kind, but I think I will be most comfortable in my own home," Alison said wistfully. Longbourn was even stranger to her currently than Lucas Lodge, but at least there she might relax. She longed to take off the confining dress and lie down on a bed.
"Yet you must wait until Mr. Jones arrives, now he has been summoned," Lady Lucas insisted.
Alison looked at her wearily. He might be sent on to Longbourn, but she hated to cause others such undue inconvenience. "I suppose we must wait," she capitulated, returning to her seat.
Lydia, who was twitching impatiently, ventured to say, "Might we not just look in on the puppies while we wait?"
"No! Why do you persist when I already said so?"
"But it would only take a moment ... "
"Enough!" Alison commanded. Her head felt like it would split at the sound. If this were her child, in her own time, she would know how to proceed. This Lydia, unfortunately, didn't own a phone, a computer, or even a TV to be denied. What could she do: forbid her books? That seemed very backwards to Alison and, from what she knew of the girl, not much of a punishment. "If I hear one more word on the subject from anyone" — she glared at Kitty for good measure — "she will not be permitted to attend the next assembly or ball to come up, whichever it may be."
Lydia gasped and was on the verge of retorting, but a quick pinch from Kitty stayed her tongue. Alison was delighted to see how well her threat, no matter how vague, achieved its end.
Mr. Jones soon arrived and examined her eyes, confirming the good sense of her previous actions. Mary looked at her with renewed respect, and the lady in Mrs. Bennet's body tried to set a good example by not looking too smug about it. The apothecary suggested a precautionary bleeding, which Alison stoutly refused. With his departure, the Lucases could excuse that of the Bennets, and the ladies were escorted to their carriage and soon on their way. It was an unusually quiet ride, or so Alison surmised. Mary maintained the bulk of conversation, a task at which she was not fluent. Alison imagined that her younger sisters typically drowned her out, and she responded encouragingly to one of the girl's less pedantic assertions, but her attention was distracted by a familiar glare of rebellion from Lydia. Truly, Alison thought it must be searing her flesh.
When they passed through an open iron gate onto the grounds of Longbourn, Alison could not help but eagerly look about her. She spotted the "wilderness" to the side of the house in which Lady Catherine berated Elizabeth, and what must be the hermitage just visible on a distant rise. She could not suppress a gurgle of delight as her eyes took in the ivy-covered edifice: a testament to the stability and age of the stone walls to which it clung. The sound of gravel scattering beneath the carriage wheels was perfect, almost familiar, echoing through countless classic novels and film adaptations. She was helped from the coach by an awkward boy and surveyed the unobstructed facade. The house was perfectly charming, neither as shabby as in the 2005 film, nor as stark as the 1995 version. Were it situated in her own Baltimore County neighborhood, the place would cost a fortune. The entryway was arched and supported by two sturdy pillars. The carved stairwell nearly took her breath away, its artistry quite unusual in the modern world.
Mrs. Hill was a surprise, too: not the dumpy, worn creature of film, but a plump and motherly lady with a bright smile and twinkling eyes. She began helping Alison to remove her tight pelisse, causing her to jump slightly at the feel of unexpected hands on her shoulders, though no one seemed to notice. Lydia stalked off upstairs, soon followed by Kitty. Mary retreated to the pianoforte, whose strained notes soon penetrated Alison's ears.
"Can I get you anything, ma'am?" Hill asked. "You will be wanting to rest after your ordeal."
"Yes." She knew not where anything was located. "Might you help me change into something less restraining? I would like to lay down."
"Indeed, ma'am! Just lean on me, and we will get you upstairs and comfortable. You shall be wanting a few drops of laudanum in a nice cup of tea to settle your nerves. Ought I have Sarah see to it?"
Apparently, laudanum would have been a less exceptional request than ice after all.