The festivities were in full swing, meaning everyone had had enough time to be introduced and say hello to everyone else, down a few circulations of hors d'oeuvres and imbibe a round of champagne and more else besides from the open bar, and now could politely dissolve and congregate into groups more familiar and select. Caroline Lee, having ensured that everything had gone off without a hitch—or anyone knowing there had been hitches, good lord, it was luck she had seen the vols-au-vent first before they left the kitchen—chose the pleasure of her own company in a quiet out-of-the-way corner, at a table set for the Chan clan but currently vacant since the elders had joined her parents somewhere in the hall, probably to compare their children's achievements. Caroline imagined her mother chafing underneath an implacable smile through the small talk about Kevin Chan starting his residency. He and Bing had been on the same track. Only Kevin was completing that race and Bing—
Bing was here tonight at the center of the jamboree announcing his engagement to Jane Bennet.
Not quite a feather in the Lee cap, but no one could blame Caroline or claim she hadn't done her best to make otherwise happen. Caroline had already spent a significant part of the evening providing explanations—explanations and not veiled apologies or excuses—for her brother's choice to the slightly bewildered contingent that were family friends and acquaintances.
She supposed Jane was doing her part, too.
The girl never stopped smiling. Even when Caroline could tell that an accent was confounding her powers of comprehension. Bing was too enthusiastic and over the moon about the occasion to fully realize it, but his natural complaisance somehow maneuvered the both of them through a host of congratulations conveyed and lost and everywhere more smiles afterward.
Those two just . . . danced through life.
It would have been infuriating if Bing weren't her brother. And that he was so damn happy.
Which was obviously why he'd needed someone like Caroline to help arrange and execute this whole fiasco.
Without. A. Hitch.
Caroline raised the glass of her latest cocktail, a mint julep, to her lips and sipped. If there was any consolation here, it was that she and her parents had mostly avoided Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, whose jubilant raptures sounded out like sonar pings to keep all alerted to her position. Caroline, going one step farther, found it much more peaceful to avoid all the loci of attention—the betrothed, the beaming and gracious parents, the glowing siblings and close friends.
Lizzie Bennet. With William Darcy.
Caroline spotted them easily in the crowd, the telltale Bennet red hair like a beacon even given their smaller stature. The Bennet-Darcy pair had run into college friends of Bing's who happened to double as acquaintances of William and the rounds were being made, Darcy placing his hand upon the small of Lizzie's back as he appeared to introduce her, his girlfriend, the sister of the bride-to-be, smiling easily and unfazed, the joy radiating from her posture and expression almost equal to that of her sister, as if the alabaster of their skin trapped light beneath the dermis and the settling night was attempting to draw it out.
The mint in Caroline's mouth suddenly bore no taste.
Caroline shifted to set her glass down and noticed she wasn't alone. A body, unnoticed, had at some point occupied the seat beside her.
Caroline didn't say anything, showed no surprise, nor, she would like to think to her credit, distaste when she registered her unexpected company to be one Charlotte Lu.
Charlotte offered neither greeting nor an overture at pleasantries, not much more than a smile that was there and gone in an eye blink. So Caroline repaid the courtesy and kept her silence, returning to her study of the crowd. If her eyes were drawn to a certain quarter, hovering around a certain pair, it wasn't anyone's business.
"Lizzie still getting under your skin?" Charlotte asked, intruding upon Caroline's solitary perusal, in that tone she had mostly devoid of inflection that lent an air of matter-of-fact observation to her words.
"What?" Caroline snapped, far more dismissively than she might have let slip a few hours earlier and two drinks less. It didn't help that Charlotte Lu was speaking to her unprompted and uninvited, Charlotte Lu who was probably the worst of the bunch the Netherfield debacle had brought Caroline into contact with, really. No one would have painted Charlotte with the epithet FOB, but sometimes Caroline felt it seeping through that simpering, scraping effort with which Lu scrabbled for everything, anything, and with Charlotte seated beside her the association menaced, threatening to taint Caroline via proximity. It was one reason Caroline didn't make a habit of engaging Charlotte, alone or in a group.
Another was that Charlotte had had the gall to portray her—poorly, inaccurately—as a pretentious snob for the whole world web to see.
Not that anyone of consequence watched Lizzie Bennet's little YouTube videos.
"Lizzie," Charlotte restated, as if plucking the name from Caroline's thoughts, looking in the direction of the sister of tonight's fêted betrothed conversing now with her siblings. Charlotte glanced at Caroline sidelong. "Have you figured it out, yet?"
"Figured what out?" drawled Caroline in the tone with which she addressed toddlers and brats.
"Why you're so attracted to her," Charlotte said. In that matter-of-fact manner.
Reflex and impulse almost launched Caroline sweeping Charlotte into a dance of equivocation and prevarication and maybe a bit of obfuscating insinuation and needling implication mixed in for good measure, but the question itself, that it came presented by Charlotte Lu of all the players in this bothersome drama, possibly in combination with those two extra cocktails courtesy of the open bar Caroline had arranged, coaxed a bark of uninhibited laughter. "What are you talking about?"
Charlotte cocked her head and gave her a look that assaulted Caroline's cognitive faculties with the shock of a cold shower, murdering her mirth in her throat and sobering Caroline in a jolt that flashed clawing up her vertebrae drawing her up straight and rigid.
Charlotte Lu knew.
A touch of hysteria bubbled up in Caroline. She almost giggled. This was rich. Caroline's life had just been too rich these past few years. First Bing had squandered all the carefully laid plans and then the Bennets had outmaneuvered her, somehow, and now here she was, at her brother's engagement party, with Lizzie's little hanger-on insinuating the possession of knowledge not even Caroline herself took out to contemplate in the shadows of privacy.
"What the hell do you know?" Caroline retorted, with real venom, but wrapped in a steadfast smile and a titter to help sweeten the acid.
Charlotte Lu, though, endured the riposte with the aplomb of a small self-contained smile. She lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, gaze all self-deprecation and resignation.
Caroline's gut twisted, roiling.
Charlotte Lu knew.
Charlotte glanced again at Lizzie, perhaps in a small act of mercy to allow Caroline a reprieve to digest what was happening, what Charlotte was saying, where the next moments might lead, what Caroline could say.
What she wouldn't.
Caroline set her mouth. "Is this where you tell me Lizzie Bennet is a dyke and a gold digger, after all?"
Charlotte chuckled, humorlessly, eyes momentarily dropping to the tablecloth. "No, but I guess if that were the case—that Lizzie was a lesbian—Darcy would be that one good man who set her straight."
Caroline's jaw felt wired with tension, but she managed to utter, "Lizzie the Lesbo. Has a nice ring to it."
Charlotte looked at Caroline through her lashes, unreadable. It was Charlotte, then, who'd pulled Caroline into a dance and now they were skirting, brushing so close to the edges of the unspoken and the unspeakable. But Charlotte wasn't leading this dance. She was waiting, like a snake charmer wary of the beast she'd called forth and entranced, to see what Caroline might do.
Caroline swallowed. Looked away. Fingered the sweating body of her glass.
"So, then . . . you and . . . her?" Caroline inquired, much more softly than she'd intended, entirely more curious and intrigued than she wanted to sound, feeling muddled and off-kilter. Not just from those cocktails.
To ask wasn't to admit to anything.
But silence was the only answer, prompting Caroline to raise her eyes. Charlotte met them squarely, a light of challenge in her countenance, and lifted her eyebrows.
"But you're like sisters," Caroline said, her confusion undisguised.
"Like sisters," Charlotte corrected. "She's my best friend."
A furrow appeared between Caroline's brows. Her voice emerged hushed, drawn out of her against her desire to not be having this conversation: "Does she know?"
Charlotte's head swayed like a palm tree casting about in the wind. "Yeah? Probably. It was a long time ago."
Caroline faltered, unsure which thread to pursue. Probably? It was a long time ago?
Why the fuck are we having this conversation?
Caroline shook her head, as if to joggle the cobwebs free. Her lips twisted, derisive. "Probably? Like 'she caught you looking and you had to explain yourself' probably? Or like 'you and she experimented and that didn't go well' probably?"
Charlotte crossed her arms. "I'm not going to go into details but—Lizzie isn't like that."
She put it out there bluntly and then simply sat, letting that percolate through Caroline's thoughts. But Caroline didn't feel anything. Not shock, Not disappointment. Just nothing. Empty. Hadn't she assumed as much? Wasn't that one of the reasons she'd kept Lizzie—directly considering Lizzie rather than the role Lizzie served in the schema of her life—far from the forefront of her mind?
It had been easier to keep her eyes on the goal—Darcy—rather than the obstacle.
No need to confuse and conflate the two.
"I don't get it," Caroline said at last, voice dull.
Charlotte peered at her in question.
"Lizzie Bennet," Caroline said, swallowing a laugh. "I don't—I don't get it."
Charlotte nodded slowly. "You mean you don't get why Darcy, me . . . and you . . ."
The inclusion of herself contracted the muscles around Caroline's eyes until her vision narrowed on Charlotte. Charlotte had been speaking in a manner blasé and casual, as if talking about her (former?) attraction to her "since-fetuses best friend" wasn't anything shocking or alarming or anything out of the ordinary, and Caroline found her mind casting back through Lizzie's videos, scrounging for signs—wasn't there a mention of Charlotte's love life (nonexistent)?—and coming up empty on indicators, hints that Charlotte Lu was having a nice laugh right now at her expense, but there was nothing to the contrary of what Charlotte was saying, and suddenly Caroline was angry, irrationally angry, that Charlotte Lu, Charlotte Lu, had found and possessed something that Caroline, for all her money and advantage and connections, hadn't.
"There's no way Lizzie knows about how—about you," Caroline burst out, because she wanted it to be true.
Charlotte cocked her head, a portrait of puzzlement. "You mean that I liked her or that I like girls?"
Charlotte Lu just said it, just like that, and Caroline swung between stewing and wonder and envy. It spurred her on, reckless, insistent. "She never mentioned it in her videos and everyone knows Lizzie Bennet blabbed about everything else!"
"She didn't say anything because she's my best friend and I asked her not to," Charlotte explained calmly. "She's had a lot of practice on this subject."
Caroline found herself sitting silently, breathing heavily, a dull roar in her ears.
"You're right, though," Charlotte said carefully and Caroline's head whipped around sharply, wondering if those words cost Charlotte anything to vocalize, "Lizzie talks about everything—about anything. She always has. For as long as I've known her, she's always had opinions and she's never been afraid to express them. It used to . . ." Charlotte hesitated for the first time, voice softening, for a second unabashedly fond. ". . . amaze me."
Their gazes met and held.
Charlotte continued, "You've seen the way she talks about her mom—the way she talks back to her mom. I used to think—I still think—'Oh my God, she's crazy,' even if, when, she's right and her impression is scary good." Charlotte paused, retreating somewhere inside her head. "But it never occurs to Lizzie not to act like that." Charlotte looked at Caroline like you know?
Caroline did know.
But she should have resented it.
Not coveted it.
Not admired it.
"Lizzie is just . . . Lizzie," Charlotte said simply. "She doesn't pretend to be anything else. She doesn't feel like she needs to. And she doesn't. Doesn't compromise. Doesn't censor herself. Doesn't hold back."
Not like us, Charlotte's insinuation hung in the air between them, as if to bind them into a shared experience, as if there could be resemblance between them.
But Caroline wasn't like Charlotte Lu. No. She and Charlotte Lu existed in worlds apart.
Caroline lifted her chin. "Lizzie aspires to heights outside of her allotment."
Charlotte sat back, minisculely, and it was strange to think that of all the things Caroline had spewed throughout their conversation, it was that that pushed Charlotte into withdrawal. If Charlotte had come to Caroline in a spirit of misguided empathy rather than sympathy or pity—neither of which Caroline would have tolerated in any case—Caroline suspected those sentiments evaporated. Charlotte studied her silently, really remarkably adept at being expressionless, then glanced across the room at where Lizzie now stood with Darcy in a huddle comprised of a laughing Gigi, Lydia, Fitz, and Brandon.
"I guess you would know," Charlotte said simply and stood up. The movement perhaps caught Lizzie's eyes because the middle Bennet turned toward Charlotte, raised an arm, and flagged Charlotte over with enthusiasm, lips shaping Charlotte's name but voice lost across the crowd and space.
Charlotte Lu heeded the summons, walking away as she had appeared, without word or warning, leaving behind Caroline, carrying away with her some fancies.
(Not secrets. Hers Charlotte had left with Caroline.)
Caroline wet her throat and let herself have a little laugh, alone at the table meant for the Chans, until Jane found her, at Bing's behest, because there were pictures to pose for and people to gather. Caroline smiled at Jane, because Jane would be her sister-in-law sooner rather than later, and sooner rather than later she'd probably run into Lizzie Bennet again and maybe because of that Charlotte Lu, too, whose eyes she might chance to meet in a moment, in which would pass a silent communication, just conjecture, all baseless conjecture from Charlotte to her, but not the other way around. Next time it would be Caroline who knew.
The thought buoyed her as she slipped through the herded bodies.
The cards were in her hands.
She was still Caroline Lee.