Book cover - The Princess and the Peeano A horse galloped along the Golden Gate Promenade. Elizabeth could only remotely make out its shape through the thick fog blanketing the walkway, but she could hear the clip-clop of its hooves as it approached her.

She was dressed in a flowing, champagne-colored gown with a low-cut, lace-trimmed bodice and long, full sleeves. She felt something flapping around her shoulders in the breeze and reached up. She was wearing some kind of headdress with a diaphanous veil. Wait a minute. Since when do I dress like something out of a fairy tale? And come to think of it, since when do people ride horses out here?

The horse slowed as it approached her, and she could now see that it was a dark, powerful stallion with a sleek coat. Its rider, clad in black armor, dismounted and walked stiffly toward her. Armor? Oh, puh-leeze.

The black knight removed his helmet, revealing William Darcy’s patrician features, deep brown eyes, and dark, tousled hair.

“I’ve come to kiss you,” he intoned in a deep voice that sent shivers down her spine.

“Wearing armor? Who are you expecting to fight?” she heard herself ask.

“You, of course,” said a familiar voice behind her. “I told you. You’re fighting your feelings for him.” She turned and saw Charlotte, dressed most inappropriately for a foggy morning by the bay.

“Could you excuse me for just a moment?” Elizabeth asked Sir William.

“That’s fine. I need to get out of this armor anyway.” He glanced down, frowning at the elaborate network of buckles and other fastenings.

“What are you doing down here wrapped in a bed sheet?” Elizabeth looked at Charlotte in disbelief. “Although, come to think of it, I guess it’s no more bizarre than seeing William in a suit of armor.”

“Or you in that silly princess get-up. Besides, don’t blame me; it’s your dream. But I had to bring you this; you may need it. Remember, I said I’d get you one.” Charlotte pressed a small rectangular object into Elizabeth’s hand. She looked down and saw that it was a tape measure.

Tape measure “Have fun using it!” Charlotte chortled. “Now, are you going riding with William? That’s what he wants, you know.”

“I want to, but I’m afraid I’ll fall and get hurt.”

“Haven’t you heard people say that after you fall, you need to get right back on the horse?” Charlotte wandered away, the tail of her sheet trailing behind.

William was still busy removing his armor. He seemed to be wearing very little beneath it. Elizabeth was about to protest that this wasn’t correct—knights wore other clothing under their armor. But before she had the chance, he set aside the last of the armor, and rational thought was driven from her mind.

Tragically, no illustration available He stood before her wearing nothing but a pair of snug jeans, which somehow looked familiar. He looked good. No, actually, he looked fantastic, all taut muscles and smooth, tawny flesh.

Lydia whizzed by on inline skates, wearing her Hooter’s uniform. “See?” she cackled. “Told ya he was prime stuff!” She whinnied like a horse and skated away.

Now they were enveloped in heavy, swirling fog, creating their own private hideaway. She stared at him, her eyes huge, her breathing shallow, as he strode towards her with easy, powerful grace. She could hear Chopin playing softly in the background.

“Would you like to ride with me?” he asked, his voice a deep, silky caress. He reached up, removed her headdress, and combed his fingers through her hair.

“I want to, but I’m afraid,” she whispered.

He continued to stroke her hair. “Please say yes. I want very badly to take you riding,” he said, the quiet intensity in his voice sending a shiver through her body. His dark eyes burned into hers.

Elizabeth reached out to touch his bare chest. It felt warm and firm beneath her trembling fingers. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her tightly against him. She moaned his name as his hands slid down her back.

“Please, Elizabeth, ride with me,” he whispered hoarsely, his eyes blazing with fierce hunger. She nodded, frightened yet helpless to refuse him anything. He made an exultant sound as he gathered her into his arms and carried her to his horse. He set her on her feet, jumped into the saddle, and then effortlessly pulled her up to join him, settling her so that she sat facing him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed herself close to him, depositing soft kisses across his chest.

“You still haven’t kissed me,” she breathed, her lips parted in invitation.

William held the horse’s reins in one hand and raised his other hand to her face, cupping her cheek. “You know that I can only ride with you this one time, don’t you?” he murmured.

“Why?” she asked, mesmerized by the sensuous mouth descending towards hers.

“Because,” he whispered against her lips, “you’re not at my social level.”

 

“Lizzy? Are you all right?”

Elizabeth opened her eyes and blinked hard, trying to remember where she was. Jane’s worried face floated above her, visible in the pale morning light filtering through the curtains. “What’s wrong?” Elizabeth asked, her voice thick with sleep.

“I heard you in here making strange noises. I thought you might be ill. But you must have been dreaming.”

Elizabeth tried to remember the dream, which was quickly fading. Something about a horse, in the fog? And I think Lydia was in it. She shook her head. The details were just out of her reach.

“What time is it?” she asked, struggling to sit up.

“A little after 7:30.”

“Did you get much sleep?” It didn’t look like it. Jane’s face was pale and drawn, her eyes red-rimmed.

“A little.” Jane sat on the edge of Elizabeth’s bed. “Thank you for taking such good care of me last night. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“You would have been just fine. I couldn’t believe how strong you were.”

“Did I do the right thing? Maybe Charles is right and I should just trust that it will all work out fine.”

“Last night you seemed sure that you and Charles would be miserable if you agreed to Mr. Bingley’s terms. Have you changed your mind?”

Jane shook her head sadly. “He’s destroying Charles. That would only get worse if we did what he wants. But now there’s nobody on Charles’s side, nobody to fight for him or help him. I’ve abandoned him.” Jane began to cry quietly.

Elizabeth scooted across the bed to sit beside Jane, wrapping her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “But Charles won’t really let you help him, right?”

“No, he won’t,” Jane sniffled. “He thinks nothing can be done.”

“Maybe losing you will bring him to his senses and he’ll realize that he’s got to be stronger. He may be knocking at your door before you know it, willing to do anything to keep you.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Yes, I do. Where is he going to find anyone who compares to you?”

“Oh, Lizzy, it’s so good to have you here,” Jane sighed, hugging Elizabeth.

“I’m glad to be here too. I miss you so much when I’m in New York.”

“I hope you get that job. It would mean so much to have you here.”

“I hope so too, but my chances aren’t good.” Elizabeth hopped to her feet. “I’d better take my shower and get dressed. Charlotte said she’d come over and help us make calls.”

“Okay. While you do that, I’m going to call Mom and Dad. If Dad answers the phone I’ll tell him what’s going on; otherwise I’ll just ask Mom to get here early without telling her why.”

Elizabeth searched the small bag with her toiletries, but couldn’t find her shampoo. Then she remembered tossing the bottle into the center pocket of her suitcase at the last minute. She retrieved it, noting with surprise that it was only half full.

During her shower, she tried to recall her dream. She remembered now that Charlotte had been in it. Wearing … a sheet? And I think there was a horse in there somewhere. A vision of dark, hungry eyes filled her mind, eyes that seemed familiar from the dream.

Elizabeth returned to the bedroom dressed in her underwear and began to search her suitcase for something to wear. She located a pair of slim-fitting black capri pants and a pair of flip-flops in a side pocket. But when she opened the center pocket, in search of the oversized tee shirt she wanted to wear, she felt a viscous liquid coating her clothes. She yanked her hand out of the suitcase and sniffed.

That explained the half-empty shampoo bottle; it had leaked all over most of the clothes she had packed. She pulled on the capri pants and her nightshirt and went in search of Jane, who was in the kitchen reviewing the list of wedding guests.

“Lizzy, do you want some coffee?”

“Actually, I’ve had a little luggage accident with a shampoo bottle. Do you have a shirt I could borrow, just till I get some laundry done?”

“Oh, no! Was anything permanently damaged?”

“Thank goodness, no. My suit for the interview was in my garment bag. And everything else is washable.”

Jane smiled. “That’s lucky. Still packing haphazardly, I take it?”

“Yes, big sis,” Elizabeth answered with a grin. It was good to see Jane smile. “I guess I never learned that ‘every sock in its proper place’ lesson from you. Now, about borrowing something to wear?”

“Well, let’s see. Most of my clothes are at the … at Charles’s house.” Jane sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. “But I left a few things here.”

The sisters walked into Jane’s bedroom and peered into the closet. As Jane had indicated, it was mostly empty. Elizabeth glanced sadly at the wedding gown hanging alone at the other end of the closet, covered by a plastic bag.

Jane held up a halter top, a jogging bra, and a midriff-baring scoop-neck tee shirt. “Not your style, I think.”

Elizabeth shook her head.

“Wait,” Jane said. “Here we go.” She showed Elizabeth a sleeveless white silk top with a high, rolled collar. The front and sides were shirred, while the back was sheer. “I never really wore this. I love the fabric, but it needed better curves than mine to fill it out. I bet it would look fantastic on you.”

Elizabeth took the top from Jane, looking at it skeptically. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s awfully dressy; I just wanted something casual. And that see-through back … I don’t know.”

“Come on, Lizzy, have some fun. If you were in a bathing suit, that part of your back would be completely bare. It’s not as though you can see through the front.”

Elizabeth held the garment at arm’s length, frowning. The front might not be transparent, but it was thin enough that it wouldn’t leave much to the imagination.

Jane made a small, exasperated noise. “Elizabeth Bennet, I know you’re modest, but this isn’t going to make you look like the Whore of Babylon.”

“Okay, thanks. It really is pretty.” Elizabeth slipped off her tee shirt and drew the top over her head.

Jane inspected her and nodded approvingly. “You should keep it. It never looked that good on me!”

Elizabeth looked at herself in the mirror. The top was far more revealing than her usual wardrobe, clinging to the curves of her breasts and leaving a small expanse of her stomach uncovered, but it was just a temporary solution. “Thanks for the loan. I’m going to go dry my hair now.”

“How about if I show you how to style your hair so you can wear it down whenever you want?”

“We can do that some other time. You have lots of other things to worry about.”

“Actually, I’d enjoy it.” Jane smiled, but Elizabeth saw tears swimming in her eyes. “It would remind me of when we were younger and life was a lot easier to understand.”

Elizabeth squeezed Jane’s hand. “That sounds good to me.”

 

The doorbell rang, and Jane hurried to answer it. Elizabeth, who had done a creditable job with her hair under Jane’s tutelage, was a few steps behind. They exchanged warm greetings with their aunt and uncle, Madeline and Edward Gardiner.

“You poor dear,” Madeline said, enfolding Jane in a motherly hug. “I’m so sorry about everything.”

Jane’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry you came all the way out here for nothing.”

Edward spoke briskly. “Don’t give it another thought. These things happen sometimes. It’s far better to call off the wedding than to regret getting married afterwards.”

”Would you like to talk about it?” asked Madeline. “If you’d rather not, I understand. I’m sure you’ve talked it through with Lizzy already.”

Jane bit her lip. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not discuss it just now. I—” She stopped and took a shaky breath.

“It’s all right, dear,” Madeline answered in a soothing tone. “No need to explain. But if you want to talk later, the offer is open, okay?”

Jane nodded, wiping a tear from her eye. She was trying to be strong, but Elizabeth could see that she was barely holding herself together. It was good that the Gardiners were here. Aunt Madeline had always been a good friend and confidante to both Elizabeth and Jane, old enough to have useful advice to offer, yet close enough to their ages to be able to connect with them as a friend.

“When will your mother be here?” Madeline asked.

“Probably not till lunchtime. She doesn’t know why I asked her to come up early, so it was hard to persuade her. I guess Kitty and Lydia aren’t feeling well this morning and she wants to let them sleep in.”

Elizabeth snorted. “After the drinking they did last night, I’m surprised they’re conscious.”

Jane looked at Elizabeth reproachfully. “Now, Lizzy, it might be a flu bug.”

Elizabeth shot a glance at her aunt. “Trust me, it’s the after-effects of beer and tequila shooters..”

“I take it they cut a wide swath at the party?” Madeline asked.

“To say the least. It was embarrassing to have them acting that way in front of the other guests.” And one guest in particular, but Elizabeth tried not to think about that.

Madeline shook her head. “Those girls. Especially Lydia. I think Kitty would be fine on her own.”

“Would you like some breakfast?” Jane asked. “I don’t have a lot of food here, but I’m sure I could find something to fix.”

“We got a bite at the hotel; we were up early because of the time difference. But if you’re hungry, we’d be happy to take you out to breakfast,” Edward said. “No sense in you having to cook this morning.”

Jane shook her head. “I’m not hungry, really. What about you, Lizzy?”

“Don’t worry about me,” Elizabeth said, waving her hand in dismissal. “But you should eat something. This is going to be a difficult day for you.”

“Really, I couldn’t eat, not now.” Jane burst into tears, burying her face in her hands.“I wonder who’s taking care of Charles, and if he’s as miserable as I am this morning. I know he must be, and it’s all my fault.”

“It’s not your fault.” Elizabeth wrapped an arm around Jane’s shoulders. “Charles lied to you. He wouldn’t stand up for you. You did what you had to do.”

“But to break the engagement the night before the wedding! He must be devastated. I wish I could at least know that he’s all right.”

At Madeline’s urging, Jane sat down beside her on the sofa, resting her head on her aunt’s shoulder. Her tears gradually stopped. Elizabeth looked on, her own eyes growing damp. She was not ordinarily prone to tears, but she hated having to stand by and watch Jane suffer. She wanted desperately to do something, anything, to help.

Elizabeth found the number for the Ritz-Carlton written on a slip of paper in the kitchen. She dialed the number and asked for William’s suite, assuming that he could offer a report on Charles’s condition. But the hotel voicemail system picked up the call.

I wonder if he went running, like he planned. There would be no harm in trying to “accidentally” bump into him in order to casually inquire about Charles. If he’d taken her advice, she might find him at Crissy Field. She went to her room and put on her denim jacket. She started to brush her hair into a pony tail but then changed her mind, absently fingering a lock of hair.

When Elizabeth returned to the living room, Jane was deep in conversation with the Gardiners. “You know, I’m kind of hungry after all,” Elizabeth said in a deliberately casual tone. “I might go out and get myself a bagel, and maybe go for a short walk.”

Jane looked up and nodded. “That’s a good idea, Lizzy. You could use a break. Yesterday wasn’t an easy day for you either.”

“Can I bring anybody back a bagel?” Elizabeth asked.

The Gardiners and Jane all refused. As Elizabeth headed for the door, Jane called after her, “Just be back before Mom gets here, okay?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I promise.”

She walked down the hill to the bus stop, ordering the nervous flutters in her stomach to cease. She was on a mission to help Jane; besides, there was no guarantee she would find him.

William’s face, his eyes warm and intense, filled her mind, and she sensed that he had been in her dream too. She had a brief, perplexing flash of herself standing near him while he removed a suit of armor. It must have been the weirdest dream I ever had.

 

Golden Gate Bridge in the fogWilliam ran along the Golden Gate Promenade, a walkway following San Francisco Bay stretching from the Fort Point Coast Guard Station to the Yacht Harbor over three miles away. The waves in the bay shimmered as the sun’s rays finally touched them, reaching through the dissipating fog. He slowed his pace slightly, engrossed by the majestic sight of the Golden Gate Bridge ahead of him, still partially hidden by the fog. Birds swooped through the sky, crying to one another. He took a deep breath, and smelled the salty tang of the ocean in the damp morning air. Elizabeth was right about this place.

The sun warmed his skin, helping to counteract the chilling effect of the breeze blowing off the ocean. In fact, with the heat generated by his physical exertion, he felt almost too warm. He unzipped his jacket and brushed his hair off his forehead.

Running was William’s favorite physical activity … or, at least, his second favorite. And of those two choices, it was the one in which he engaged far more often. He had originally started running out of a desire to emulate Richard, who had made the cross country team at school. William had idolized his cousin, and had secretly begun to accompany Richard on runs in Central Park. At first, William had tired easily, struggling unsuccessfully to keep up, but he had kept working with dogged determination until finally, to the surprise of both boys, his speed and endurance nearly equaled Richard’s.

Had things been different, William might have eventually made the cross country team himself. But his mother would never have allowed it. He would never forget the day Mrs. Reynolds had found his running shoes hidden in his closet. He could still hear his mother berating him for his recklessness in the haphazard blend of English and Italian she invariably used when she was upset.

William had continued to run; by then it had become almost an addiction. But he had taken care that his mother would not find out, his new running shoes safely stashed in Richard’s closet at the Fitzwilliams’ Fifth Avenue apartment.

Almost twenty years later, Richard and William still ran together in Central Park on occasion; however, most days William preferred to run alone. It was his time to recharge his mental batteries. Sometimes he rehearsed music for upcoming concerts, envisioning his fingers moving confidently over the keys. At other times, he worked on problems related to his family’s arts foundation, evaluating courses of action and developing strategies.

On this particular morning, he had two problems to solve. The first was sprawled, semi-conscious, on the couch in his suite. Charles had a wicked hangover. William, who had sipped a single glass of scotch, had begun to water down Charles’s drinks as soon as his friend’s taste buds were numb enough that he wouldn’t notice. All the same, Charles had consumed a prodigious amount of liquor in a short time.

William had left for his run after handing Charles some ibuprofen tablets and a large glass of water. He had ordered Charles to stay where he was and to get some additional rest. Charles’s only response had been a weak groan.

Before the day was out, William intended to have a serious talk with his friend. He wished he could invite Charles for a visit in New York, but he would be traveling extensively for the next few weeks. A trip to Pemberley, perhaps, as soon as Georgie’s school year ended.

William’s reverie was interrupted by a mild throbbing in his head, and he slowed his pace. Like Charles, William had not started the morning in the best condition, though in his case it had nothing to do with alcohol. He had awakened early with a severe headache and had grown dizzy while attempting to get dressed. Some ibuprofen and 30 minutes of additional rest had left him feeling better.

Fort Point Now, less than halfway through his usual running distance, his breathing was labored, his headache was returning, and his heart was racing. But on three hours of sleep, compounded by jet lag, what else could he expect?

Summoning his remaining strength, he resumed his usual pace. The promenade ended, depositing him on a road leading to Fort Point, an old fort nestled beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Okay. Regular, deep, slow breaths. Efficient use of oxygen; that’s the key.

surf along Golden Gate Promenade Had William’s mind been more at ease, he might have enjoyed the wildflowers blanketing the hill to his left, or the surf crashing against the rocks to his right; however, he had other things to ponder. My second problem. Elizabeth Bennet.

After Charles had finally fallen asleep—or perhaps just into an inebriated stupor—William had retreated to his bedroom. His head had barely made contact with his pillow when a tantalizing vision of Elizabeth filled his mind. She stood beside the bed in a diaphanous nightgown, holding out her hand to him in wordless invitation, her eyes alight with passion. And when he finally succumbed to sleep, she invaded his dreams, teasing and tempting him yet remaining just out of reach, driving him to fresh agonies of frustrated desire.

Golden Gate Bridge from belowHe was alarmed by the speed with which Elizabeth Bennet had burrowed into his thoughts. He had known her for only a day, yet in this short time she had cast a powerful spell. He puzzled over the matter, searching for an explanation. She was intelligent, interesting, and very pretty, but he couldn’t account for the depth of the attraction. After all, I know plenty of women just as intriguing as Elizabeth … don’t I?

William reached the fort. He stopped briefly to take a quick swig from a water bottle in his jacket pocket and then, turning a wide circle, began to run back towards Crissy Field as he pondered that unexpectedly profound question.

 

Elizabeth stood on the Golden Gate Promenade at Crissy Field, twisting a lock of hair around her finger while her eyes restlessly scanned the walkway. She had managed to locate William’s red Z3 in the parking lot, so she knew that if she waited long enough, he would appear. But after fifteen minutes, she was beginning to question her plan.

Golden Gate Promenade How are you going to keep a straight face while claiming to have accidentally bumped into him? You’re the one who suggested that he come here.

Maybe honesty was the best policy after all. She could simply explain that Jane was concerned about Charles. She didn’t want William to know how upset Jane was, not after Jane had worked so hard to maintain outward calm with Charles last night. But after breaking the engagement, especially so close to the wedding, Jane would have to be heartless not to care about Charles’s welfare.

She drew in a sharp breath when she saw a tall, dark-haired man running toward her along the Promenade. As she watched, he slowed his pace and finally stopped, looking out at the bay and breathing hard. His white tee shirt clung to his broad chest, and a light sheen of perspiration glistened on his arms. For a moment, all she could do was stare.

Before she could collect her faculties sufficiently to call out to him, his eyes fell on her, widening in surprise. He quickly covered the short distance between them.

“Elizabeth?”

“Hi, William,” she said, in her best attempt at a nonchalant tone. Why does this seem so familiar?

“I wasn’t expecting—that is … it’s good to see you.” He pressed his lips together and glanced down at himself, frowning slightly. He ran one hand through his hair, his chest still heaving from his exertion.

His jaw was covered with dark brown stubble, and his hair had been ruffled by the wind. A bead of moisture traveled slowly downward, tracing a path over his Adam’s apple. She licked her lips reflexively as she had an improbable memory of kissing his warm, salty skin. Of course that never happened. I must be losing my mind.

She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. “I hope you don’t mind my coming here this morning.”

“No, of course not,” William answered quickly.

“We—Jane and I—were concerned about Charles. I tried to called you at the hotel to ask if you knew how he was doing, but there was no answer. I remembered our conversation about running, and I thought I might find you here.” There. That sounded completely reasonable.

“He spent the night on the couch in my suite. I don’t know how he’s feeling this morning, other than that he’s hung over. He wasn’t fully awake when I left.”

“Oh. I see. Well, anyway, I’m glad you’re keeping an eye on him. I feel sorry for him, even if he did really blow it with Jane.”

William frowned at her remark. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I know he’s your friend.”

“No, you’re right. He was wrong to lie to Jane and his parents. He thought he could make everyone happy, but that’s not how the world works. I told him that he was making a mistake with his lies.”

“You knew what he was doing?” Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, her voice cool. She hadn’t suspected that William was Charles’s co-conspirator.

His frown deepened. “He told me at lunch yesterday. But he wouldn’t listen to reason. And I couldn’t betray his confidence by telling anyone,” he said in a clipped tone, lifting his chin.

“No, of course not,” she agreed quickly. “It wasn’t your place to tell Jane. That was Charles’s job.”

William nodded slightly, and the tension between them abated. “But I’m sorry that Mr. Bingley overheard me out on the courtyard talking to Charles,” he admitted. “Once I found out that Caroline knew about the pre-nup, I knew she wouldn’t let it rest, and I was warning Charles when Mr. Bingley heard us. So what happened is partly my fault.”

“No, it’s not!” She was surprised at the vehemence of her rebuttal. “Like you said, you were just being a good friend and trying to give Charles a chance to fix things before it was too late. It wasn’t your fault that Mr. Bingley overheard.”

He looked at her, his eyes warm with gratitude. “Thank you.”

They stood together in awkward silence. William shoved one hand into his pocket, shifting from one foot to another. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Would you like to go for a walk on the beach?”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to interrupt your run.” She had the strangest impression that some time in the recent past, he had stood in much the same place and asked her to go somewhere with him.

“I’m done running for today.”

“Are you sure you have time? You don’t need to get back to Charles?”

Crissy Field BeachHe checked his watch. “It’s only 9:30. I think he’ll be asleep for a while yet.”

“Then I’d love to.”

He inclined his head in the direction of the water. “Shall we?” Together, they strolled toward the beach.

When they reached the sandy strand, Elizabeth slipped off her flip-flops. “I love walking barefoot on the sand.” She sighed happily, wiggling her toes. “Do you like the beach?”

Crissy Field Beach “Yes, I do,” he answered quietly. After a moment’s hesitation, he removed his running shoes, set them on the ground beside her flip-flops, and then dropped his jacket on top of his shoes.

They wandered down the beach in companionable silence, taking in the sights and sounds of the waterfront. A few others strolled along the water’s edge, some with dogs running excited circles around them, barking in delight. A smattering of sailboats dotted the bay in the distance, their snowy white sails filled by the fresh breeze.

“By the way, thank you for recommending that I come down here to run. It was the perfect choice,” he said.

“I love the waterfront. There’s something about it that’s calming and energizing all at the same time.” She sighed blissfully, relishing the sound of the water lapping against the shore.

They fell silent again, watching a cargo ship steam under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the bay. “It’s so beautiful here in the morning,” she said. “Were you here early enough to see the bridge engulfed in fog?”

Golden Gate Bridge fogged in“Yes, I was.”

“Wasn’t it an incredible sight?”

William chuckled. “Yes, though I must say that driving on the bridge through that fog was a bit disconcerting.”

Elizabeth eyed him with a sly smile. “Oh, so you ended up on the bridge, did you? Don’t tell me you got lost on your way here in spite of that ‘excellent sense of direction’ of yours!”

He pressed his lips together and looked away, and she was certain that she saw his cheeks redden.

“I knew it! And I tried to warn you!” She laughed, her eyes alight with mischief. The wind whipped her hair into an unruly mass of locks. He reached out slowly and smoothed her hair back from her face, his hand lingering in her curls.

“I think it’s hopeless,” she said, suddenly self-conscious. “I was pretty stupid to come here with my hair down. I must be a mess.”

He shook his head. “You’re beautiful,” he murmured, his voice husky. He stepped closer to her, touching her cheek in a soft caress.

Elizabeth felt herself melting under the heat of William’s steady gaze. His hand moved from her cheek to stroke her jaw, tipping her chin up as his head descended slowly toward hers. As she gazed into his dark, hungry eyes, her dream flooded back into her mind in a disconcerting rush of detail. She gasped and stepped backwards, stumbling slightly.

Oh, no. I dreamed about him? And we were going to—

Her hands flew to her cheeks as she struggled to regain her composure. She looked up at him and felt a rush of sympathy when she saw a mixture of confusion and guilt on his face.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed that—” he stepped away from her as he spoke.

“No, William, that’s not it, really.” Elizabeth, though still flustered, instinctively grabbed his hand. “I just—well, I had a strange dream last night, and I’ve been trying to remember it. The details just came back to me in a rush and startled me.”

He glanced down at their hands, and for a moment she expected him to pull away. But then she felt the tension drain from his body. “It must have been quite a dream,” he remarked. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“No, that’s okay. It would probably just bore you. I’m sorry to be such an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” he answered gently. He turned his hand in hers so that their fingers were intertwined, and they resumed their progress down the beach.

 

William was perplexed by her reaction to his attempt to kiss her, but judging from her frequent shy smiles as they wandered along the shoreline, she hadn’t intended to reject him. He began to relax, relishing the warmth of the sun, the fresh breeze off the bay, and especially the gentle pressure of her palm against his.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?” she said, breaking the companionable silence.

“What?”

“That we don’t even need Caroline Bingley to interrupt us. I can do it all by myself!”

Creature from the Black Lagoon He stopped walking and turned to face her, chuckling, her hand still in his. “I don’t think Caroline would be caught dead down here. It’s nowhere near fashionable enough.”

“I don’t know. I get the impression that she would do just about anything to stake her claim on you. I half expect to see her rise up out of the bay any second in a wet suit, snorkel, and mask, and storm over here like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

William’s shout of laughter startled some birds feasting at the water’s edge, and they dispersed in a flurry of scampering feet and flapping wings. He smiled in sheer delight at Elizabeth, feeling an ache in his heart even stronger than the one in his body. She was a vital life force, sparkling and laughing and so alive, and he had to kiss her. He stepped forward until their bodies almost touched, barely restraining himself from drawing her into his arms.

“You have a great laugh and a wonderful smile,” she said softly. “You should use them more often.”

“Yes,” he murmured, cupping her face in his hands. “I think you’re right.” Her green eyes shone softly, but her smile vanished. Undaunted, he lowered his head inch by inch, anticipating the moment when he would finally know the taste and feel of her mouth. At last his lips brushed hers in a tentative, feather-light caress.

He wondered how such a soft kiss could steal his breath and make every nerve ending tingle with unfulfilled longing. Elizabeth seemed affected as well. She placed both hands on his chest to steady herself, sighing quietly.

His lips left hers and he raised his head, staring intently into her eyes. She looked dazed at first. Then he saw clarity return, and she stepped away from him, biting her lip and staring in the direction of the water.

His body and brain were making contradictory, and urgent, demands. He ached to crush her in his arms and kiss her again, this time in a thorough, unhurried exploration of her mouth. But his brain warned him that this was not another heated fantasy in which Elizabeth yielded to him willingly, even eagerly. This was reality, and she was uncomfortable with the increased intimacy between them.

“It’s getting warmer, isn’t it?” she asked in an unsteady voice. She removed her denim jacket and smiled awkwardly at him.

He barely suppressed an agonized groan when he saw what she wore under the jacket. Her snug white blouse clung to her body, revealing curves even more voluptuous than those prominently featured in his fantasies. This is absurd. I haven’t been like this since … I’ve never been like this.

Swallowing hard, he turned back to her, forcing his eyes to stay on her face. “Elizabeth?”

“Yes?”

“May I call you when we get back to New York? Perhaps we could go to dinner, or a concert?” He could no longer pretend that he would forget her once he returned home. He had to see her again, if only to get her out of his system.

She was silent for a moment and then nodded, unsmiling. “Yes, I’d like that.”

“Good. Excellent.”

She gazed off into the distance. “I suppose I should be getting back to Jane.”

“I need to check on Charles, too. But would you have time for a quick cup of coffee first?” He wasn’t ready to let her go.

“That sounds nice, but I think I’d better get going. Jane wants me there when our parents arrive, and I don’t know when that will be.”

“I have my cell phone in the car. You could call Jane and see if she needs you yet. And I’ll check on Charles. Then, if things work out, we could get some coffee.”

Elizabeth considered this idea. “All right, I suppose that would work.”

She turned and walked across the sand to the place where they had left their shoes, with William following behind. He tried not to notice the graceful curves of her hips and derriere, accentuated by her slim-fitting black pants. And he did his best to ignore her bare back, visible through the gauzy shirt. He needed to get himself under control, and soon.

 

When they reached his car, William unlocked it and handed Elizabeth his cell phone. “I’m going to be optimistic and assume that you’ll have time for coffee with me,” he said. “And that means that I should clean myself up; I’m not dressed to go out for breakfast.” He glanced down at his sweat-drenched shirt with a self-deprecating grin.

Crissy Field parking lot “You look … just fine.” She caught herself licking her lips and stopped abruptly. “We could go to a place that has sidewalk seating, if you want. You’d probably feel more comfortable being casual if we’re outside.”

“Thanks, but I have a clean shirt and sweatpants in the car. Still casual, but at least clean. While you’re on the phone, I’ll change in that building I saw across the marsh. I assume they have public rest rooms.”

Marsh at Crissy FieldElizabeth nodded. “That’s Crissy Field Center. In fact, you know what? I think they have a little café in there.”

“So we could have our coffee there.”

Crissy Field Center“Yes. I was going to suggest that we go to The Grove, but it would be faster to stay here. Also, no parking hassles.”

“In that case, let’s walk over to the Center now, and take the phone with us.”

William retrieved a small towel and a bundle of clothing from the passenger seat of the car and then locked the doors. “Ready?” he asked, flashing the same boyish, dimpled smile that had touched Elizabeth’s heart last night in the courtyard.

Elizabeth felt a tingling in the pit of her stomach. “Yes, I’m ready.” But as they followed the boardwalk across the marsh, she questioned her words. I don’t think I am ready for whatever is happening. Not at all.

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