Marcia Reynolds drummed her fingers on the end table beside her chair. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand for the tenth time in as many minutes. Almost 2:00 am. Where is that man? I think he does this on purpose to drive me crazy.

Finally she heard the hum of the elevator, followed by her husband’s heavy footsteps in the hall. She rose to her feet as Allen entered the bedroom/sitting room combination they shared on the sixth floor of the Darcy townhouse.

“Where have you been? I heard William come upstairs ages ago.”

He shrugged. “I stopped in the kitchen for a snack. What’s the problem?”

“I want to hear all about her.”

“All about who?”

“Mrs. Darcy told me that you and William were out driving a young lady home, someone from the reception.”

“That’s right.”

“Well?”

Allen emptied his trouser pockets onto the dresser. “Well, what?”

“You can be so thick-headed sometimes. Tell me about her!”

“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet. She seems like a nice girl.”

“That’s the best you can do? A nice girl named Elizabeth?”

“I don’t know what you want from me.” Allen walked into the bathroom with Marcia at his heels, her bathrobe flapping behind her.

“What did she and William talk about?”

“I don’t eavesdrop on the family’s conversations.”

“Oh, you do so. Come on, tell me. This is important.”

“Why are you so interested?”

“It’s just a feeling I have. William was whistling on his way up the stairs tonight. Whistling! I can’t remember the last time he was in such a good mood.”

“Georgiana told me that the recital was a big success. Maybe he was happy about that.”

“Allen Jerome Reynolds, sometimes you’re as dumb as a post.” Marcia shook her head. “William gives successful performances all the time; that wouldn’t have him whistling on the stairs. No, it’s this girl. I can feel it.”

Allen squeezed a ribbon of toothpaste on his toothbrush. “Now that you mention it, he seemed to be in a better mood tonight than he was the day we took her the flowers.”

“The day you did what?” Marcia stared at him.

“I drove William downtown one day, and he took some flowers to Miss Bennet. He met her outside the building where she works, and they went for a walk together.”

“How long ago did this happen?”

“I don’t know. Maybe two or three weeks ago.”

“And you’re just now getting around to mentioning it.” Marcia rolled her eyes. “Like I said, dumb as a post.”

Allen set down his toothbrush. “I didn’t realize that one of my jobs was to report William’s every move to you. But, it did seem strange that Miss Bennet didn’t keep the flowers.”

“She didn’t? Why not?”

“I don’t know. But he told me that I could give them to you.”

“That’s where you got those gorgeous roses you gave me? And here I thought you’d finally grown a romantic bone in your body. Wasn’t that right before he went to Boston?”

“I don’t remember.”

“It was. I’m sure of it. And he’s been in a blue funk ever since. I knew it was a woman!”

“Well, Kreskin, if you don’t mind I’m going to finish getting ready for bed now.”

Marcia Reynolds slept well that night, her dreams filled with visions of wedding festivities, baby showers, and children with soulful brown eyes.

 

William couldn’t seem to stop yawning, despite several pokes in the ribs from Georgiana. He had lain awake for most of the night, first basking in the euphoria of the evening, but later brooding over the doubts that had gradually crept into his mind.

St. Bartholomew ChurchDespite his fatigue, and despite the presence of his usual morning headache, William hadn’t even considered hitting the snooze button when his alarm buzzed. Rose expected all family members to join her for the 11:00 service at St. Bartholomew’s, followed by brunch at the townhouse, and she was unsympathetic to complaints about late nights and conflicting appointments. Even Richard lacked the nerve to brave Rose’s disapproval. He often dragged himself home on Sunday morning just in time to change his clothes and dash to the church.

Because of his travel schedule, William was often away from New York on Sundays, so it meant a great deal to his grandmother when he was able to join in the long-standing St. Bartholomew Churchfamily tradition. She sat to his left, her posture proud and tall, staring intently at the rector as he delivered the sermon. Out of her earshot, Richard often referred to Rose as “that tough old bird,” and the description was apt. Her word was law in the family, and she was an equally formidable figure in Manhattan society.

But her toughness masked deep devotion to her family. Although she rarely displayed her affection, Rose loved them all, and William knew that he held a special place in her heart.

She also harbored a fierce protective streak where her family was concerned, which was almost certainly the cause of her wary reaction to Elizabeth. Rose had never approved of William’s habit of drifting through tepid relationships with women; she wanted to see him married and producing heirs to carry on the Darcy legacy. But at least he was always discreet, and his companions chosen from their social circle. Much to Rose’s chagrin, those two things could not be said of Richard.

But last night she saw me barely able to keep my hands off a woman she’s never met. No wonder she asked Elizabeth all those questions in the car.

The Fitzwilliams had arrived too late for any conversation before the service, so William wasn’t sure if Richard bore a grudge over last night’s competition for Elizabeth’s attention. Not that he particularly cared; winning had been imperative.

William shook his head, interrupting this self-congratulatory train of thought. I didn’t win anything yet. Yes, she was willing to talk to me last night and she even seemed to enjoy my company. But this is a woman who loathed me, and for good reason, just a few weeks ago.

After his ill-timed attempt to kiss her at the reception, she had become skittish. She had only reluctantly accepted a ride home, and she had not seemed to want his company on the trip to her apartment, going so far as to suggest that Allen could drive her home by himself. And when she stopped me from kissing her, she didn’t say, “Not here,” or “Not now.” She just said, “No.”

In spite of the discouraging signals, the temptation to kiss her goodnight had been almost overwhelming. But at the last moment, William had seen something in her eyes. Reluctance? Fear? He couldn’t tell. Unsure where he stood, he had executed a last-second diversion and had kissed her cheek instead.

I wish I knew what she was thinking this morning. He sighed loudly, earning him curious glances from Georgie, Rose, and his Aunt Eleanor. Appropriately chastened, he summoned all his willpower and focused on the sermon.

 

After church, the Darcy/Fitzwilliam clan assembled in the stately living room of the townhouse. Most were drinking coffee or tea; Richard and his father, Robert Fitzwilliam, sipped their Bloody Marys, both stirring them idly with the stalk of celery festooning the glass. Last night’s recital was the primary topic of conversation.

“How much money did you raise?” Robert asked.

“Sonya is going to run the final figures tomorrow, but I think it’s going to be a new record,” William answered. “We may be able to increase the number of scholarship awards by as much as a third.”

“The hall looked full. I assume it was a sell-out?” Eleanor Fitzwilliam asked.

“It always is,” Georgiana said, looking fondly at her brother. “Everyone wants to hear Will play.”

Rose nodded. “We may want to consider using a larger venue next year.”

“The reception went well, too,” Eleanor said. “The guests seemed to enjoy themselves.”

“And what about Miss Bennet?” Rose asked. “Did she enjoy herself?”

William had been expecting this. “Yes, Gran, she said that she did.”

“Ah, yes,” Richard drawled. “The delectable Ms. Bennet. Lovely girl. Not interested in me, though.” He shot a wry glance at William, who could feel a flush creeping up his neck. “Did you two get a chance to have that talk that just couldn’t wait?”

“Yes … yes, we did.”

“Who is Ms. Bennet?” Eleanor asked.

William’s color deepened as all eyes turned to him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mrs. Reynolds standing in the doorway.

“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet, Mom,” Richard interjected. “You may have seen her. I was talking to her for a while, before she got distracted by … someone else.”

William forced himself to feign indifference as he met Richard’s mocking glance.

“Oh, I think I know the one,” Eleanor replied. “The dark-haired girl in the black dress and that gorgeous beaded jacket. You spent quite a bit of time with her. So I take it you already knew her, William?”

“I met her last month in San Francisco.”

Richard turned his smirk toward William. “And apparently you two became … friends?”

William chose his words carefully. “Yes … I suppose you could say that. But I don’t know her that well.”

“William and Allen drove her home after the reception last night,” Rose remarked.

“Oh, really?” Richard’s eyebrows levitated. “Well, I always said you were quite the gentleman.” His eyes gleamed, and William felt his composure slipping further. “And are we going to be seeing more of Ms. Elizabeth Bennet?”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Darcy,” Mrs. Reynolds said in a loud voice, “but lunch is ready.”

As William passed Mrs. Reynolds on his way into the dining room, she seemed to be trying to send a message with her smile, but he didn’t have a clue what she was trying to say.

 

Lunch was over, and the Fitzwilliams had returned to their Fifth Avenue apartment. William had just finished running on the treadmill in the basement exercise room. He dragged himself up the stairs to the third floor, his chest still heaving, and turned toward his bathroom, intending to take a shower. After a glance at his watch, he decided to make a phone call first.

Only after he had collapsed into the leather chair in his sitting room did he recall that his cell phone was on the dresser in the bedroom. He hauled himself to his feet, collapsing back into the chair as a dizzy spell engulfed him. It took several minutes for the room to stop spinning and for his breathing to normalize. Without a doubt, it was time for him to visit Dr. Rosemont.

Once his head had cleared, William went to his bedroom to retrieve the phone. He dialed a number from memory as he returned to the sitting room.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Charles. It’s William.”

“Hey, Will! How’s it going?”

“Pretty well. I’m sorry it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve called. I’ve been traveling.”

“Why don’t you just start using e-mail?”

William grinned to himself, shaking his head. “Give it up, Charles. That’s not going to happen. How are you?”

“Fine, I guess.”

“How about the job?”

“I did what you suggested. I asked Father if I could do something in marketing or PR instead of taking that financial job. He wasn’t happy about it at first, but then he saw the logic in getting me as far away from numbers as possible, before I drop a decimal place or something and all hell breaks loose.”

William chuckled. Charles’s thought processes were too disorganized to allow him much aptitude for math.

“So I’m now the Assistant Director of Corporate Communications. It’s not so bad. At least I feel like I’ll be good at it once I learn my way around.”

“That sounds encouraging.”

“Could be a lot worse, I guess.”

“Have you spoken to Jane?”

“Not yet. I’ve been thinking about calling her, just to make sure she’s okay. But then sometimes I think it’s better if I leave her alone and let her get on with her life.”

“I know this must be hard for you.”

“Yeah, it is. I love her, Will.”

Okay. Ask him. “When you first fell for her, what made you so sure you were in love?”

“Will, we’ve been through this already, and I don’t want to argue about it anymore. Besides, it doesn’t matter now.”

“I’m not challenging you. I just meant … what was it that made you realize that you were in love?”

After a brief silence, Charles spoke in a hesitant tone. “I guess the main thing was that I thought about Jane constantly. Basically, I just wanted to be with her as much as I could, and when she wasn’t around, I was usually thinking about her.”

William listened with interest. He knew exactly what Charles was talking about.

“And I wanted to make her happy,” Charles continued. “That was the other thing. Her happiness meant everything to me. That’s the worst thing about this whole mess. I’ve hurt her, and that was the last thing I ever wanted to do.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be asking about this and making you think about Jane when you’re trying to forget her.”

“Trying to forget her? As if I could. I’ll never forget Jane. She was the one for me, and I blew it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’ve got nobody to blame but the guy in the mirror. What’s with these weird touchy-feely questions?”

William searched frantically for an excuse, but lacking that he told a vague version of the truth. “I’m trying to be more open-minded about the idea of people falling in love quickly—you know, love at first sight and so on. I thought I should consult an expert.”

“I think I’m flattered,” Charles said, chuckling. “Ask away.”

“How long did it take you to decide that you loved her?”

“You’re not going to like this part.”

“I promise not to disapprove.”

“You mean you’ll keep your disapproval to yourself. It was probably just a week or two after I met her. And really, I think I knew the first time I saw her. There was just something about her.”

William remembered the first time he had seen Elizabeth at JFK Airport. The green-eyed girl. I didn’t even know her name, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

“So what’s up, Will? Enough with the vague explanations. Have you fallen for someone?”

William briefly considered confessing the truth, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Before he figured out what to say, Charles spoke again.

“I know, it’s too silly a question to deserve an answer. I’m the impulsive one, not you. You’d never let yourself fall in love till you had a complete dossier, a psychological profile, and probably an FBI file on the woman.”

If he only knew. “I’m not that bad, am I?”

“Not quite. You know, it’s great to talk to you. I’m sorry I was out of town when you were in LA last weekend.”

“Me too. Are we still on for Pemberley at the end of the month?”

“You bet. Unless Father has a business crisis at the last minute and won’t let me go.”

“Don’t let that happen. It’ll be good for you to get away for a while, and Georgie and I are looking forward to having you along.”

“I’ll do my best. Look, I gotta go. The parents are expecting me for lunch.”

“Okay. I’ll have Sonya call you in a week or so to firm up the arrangements for Pemberley.”

“Sounds good. Catch you later, Will.”

William set his phone down and stood up. It was time for his shower, but after that he had another call to make, this one not so pleasant. He had agonized incessantly over this decision while running on the treadmill. But it was just as Charles had said. I want her to be happy. She wants this, and I can make it happen.

But what about what I want? After last night, it seemed possible that Elizabeth might eventually come to care for him. But it would take time and patience to overcome the remnants of her initial aversion. She needed to get to know him better, and he needed to gradually show her the depth and sincerity of his feelings. So maybe I shouldn’t do this. I could wait and see what happens, and then—

No. I’m going to do what’s best for her, not what suits me. Even if it costs me the woman I love.

 

After his shower, William went downstairs to his office to look up a phone number. He dialed, his fingers absently drumming the arm of his chair while he waited for an answer.

“Catherine de Bourgh speaking.”

“Catherine, it’s William Darcy.”

“William, how nice to hear from you! Excuse me for just a moment.”

William heard muffled voices in the background, and then Catherine’s reply: “It’s William Darcy. Yes, of course, the pianist. We’re very close; he’s practically part of the family.”

That’s Catherine. Always the name-dropper. When William was a boy, Catherine and her husband, noted British conductor Sir Lewis de Bourgh, had resided in New York. She and William’s mother, Anna, had met through the Opera Guild and had become close friends, especially after Sir Lewis abruptly left Catherine for a young and attractive violinist. It was not until years later that William had learned that the violinist in question was a man.

Catherine and her daughter Anne had been frequent visitors at the Darcy home until they moved to San Francisco not long after Anna Darcy’s death. As a child, William had been encouraged to refer to his mother’s friend as “Aunt Catherine” due to her intimacy with the family, but he had dropped this inaccurate title as he grew older.

While he waited for Catherine to finish her conversation, William reconsidered his decision. It’s not too late. I’ll tell Catherine I just called to check on Anne; she’d like that. And Lizzy can take the job at Hunter College and stay in New York, and we can be together.

Stop it. You know what you need to do.

“I’m back, William,” Catherine said. “We have some unexpected houseguests this weekend; I was just explaining that you were on the phone. Anne and I were so sorry to have to cancel our trip back east for the recital. I’m sure it was a triumph.”

“We missed you. Is Anne feeling better?”

“Yes, the doctor thinks she’ll be fine after a few days of rest. But as you know, we can’t be too careful; her health is so delicate.”

“Yes, of course.” Anne suffered from frequent bouts of illness, though the specific nature of her problems had never been clear to William. “Catherine, I don’t want to keep you from your guests, so I’ll get right to the point. I’m calling about Elizabeth Bennet.”

“What about her?” Catherine’s voice was cool.

“When I saw you in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I asked you to give her serious consideration for your open teaching position.” William had stopped by Catherine’s home on Sunday morning of the wedding weekend before returning to New York.

“Yes, and I did so. But we found two other candidates who were, in my view, superior.”

“Then you’ve already filled the position?” William felt a wave of relief. He had tried, but it was too late. No one could blame him for that.

“No. Our first-choice candidate accepted a position at Eastman instead, and I haven’t contacted our second choice yet.

“In that case, I want to renew my suggestion that you give Ms. Bennet serious consideration.”

“What is your interest in this young woman? Is she a girlfriend of yours?”

“No, she’s not,” William responded in what he hoped was a casual tone. “I met her recently through my friend Charles Bingley—I think you’ve met him—and she struck me as someone who would be an asset to your program. And she’s interested in returning home to San Francisco.”

“Her qualifications are adequate, just barely, for an Instructor position, but I don’t care to be badgered about my hiring practices. You should tell this girl that she’s making a mistake by persuading you to twist my arm. I find it distasteful and utterly inappropriate.”

“Elizabeth doesn’t know that you and I have spoken about her situation.”

Catherine snorted in obvious skepticism. “I respect you as a musician, William, but you are not a skilled judge of potential teachers. You should leave these matters to experts such as myself.”

William had anticipated resistance from Catherine and had devised a strategy to overcome her objections. “Catherine, you said that she was adequately qualified. Suppose you could have her services at no cost to the school. Would that be of interest to you?”

“What are you proposing?”

“If you hire Elizabeth, I’ll donate an annual sum equivalent to the cost of her salary and benefits for as long as she stays at the conservatory.”

There was no response.

“Catherine, are you there?”

“William, who is this woman to you? And tell me the truth this time. She must be your girlfriend, or lover, or whatever you choose to call her, if you’re making such an outrageous offer.”

“If that were true, why would I be trying to get her a job 3,000 miles away?” A good question!

“Perhaps she’s someone you’ve tired of, and you’re attempting to discard her.”

“She’s not.”

“And in any case, why should I hire someone who can’t find a job anywhere else? It doesn’t speak well that she needs you to pay me to hire her.”

“She doesn’t. She has some excellent job offers, including one from a university here in New York. But I think she’ll be an exceptional teacher once she’s had more experience, and as you know I’m interested in advancing the quality of music education. I’d like to see a talented young teacher like Ms. Bennet get the opportunity to be on the faculty of a truly world-class institution. I’m sure she would benefit tremendously from your leadership.”

“I see. Well, yes, there is some sense in that.”

William rolled his eyes. Catherine was so predictable. “Then you accept my offer?”

“I assume these funds would be donated through your foundation?”

“No. This would be a gift from my private account, so this money would be in addition to the financial support the conservatory receives from the Darcy Arts Trust.”

“I see.” Catherine was almost purring now.

“It would be donated anonymously, and I would expect your absolute discretion. No one, except for the two of us, must know that I’m the donor.”

“Except for Ms. Bennet, I assume.”

“Especially Ms. Bennet. I don’t want her to know anything about this arrangement. Not that her salary is being paid by a special gift, and definitely not that I’m involved. That’s a firm condition of the offer.”

“It would of course help our programs to have an additional full-time faculty member. But I’d much prefer that you make an unrestricted gift and let me select the best person for the job.”

“Sorry, Catherine. My offer is strictly to support Ms. Bennet’s employment. What salary would you offer her?”

Catherine quoted a figure.

“That’s too low,” William replied. “Add twenty-five thousand dollars to that amount.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She’d be making nearly as much as some of our tenured professors.”

“All right, then, fifteen thousand more, and we’ll discuss a pay increase after her first year.”

“I still think that’s far more than is appropriate, but I suppose it would be acceptable if you insist,”

“Then we have an agreement?”

“I need to consider the matter further, and the Board of Trustees will have to be consulted. This is extremely unorthodox, and it sets a questionable precedent.”

“Not if it’s handled quietly.”

“And I need to review Ms. Bennet’s resume to re-acquaint myself with her qualifications. I will not have someone on my faculty who is unqualified, no matter what the financial incentive.”

“No, of course not.” William knew that he had won, but Catherine needed to extend her claws before she agreed. “I’ll look forward to hearing your decision. Are you and Anne coming to New York any time soon? I know Gran would love to see you both.”

The conversation shifted to Catherine’s travel plans, after which she regaled him at length with tales of conversations and meetings with various celebrities in the music world. William listened with all the patience he could muster. It’s the price I have to pay for Elizabeth’s sake.

 

custom pianoA few hours later, William sat at the piano in his sitting room. He had played etudes for an hour, followed by some preparation for next week’s recording session. He had more practicing to do that evening, but he was hungry and decided to take a short break.

His concentration had been flagging for the past hour or so, as second thoughts about his offer to Catherine de Bourgh had flooded his mind. Had he been insane? If Catherine offered Elizabeth the job, Elizabeth would have to leave New York no later than mid-August. He had only that long to try to build a relationship that could survive a separation of three thousand miles.

The more he thought about it, the more distressed he became. He would be away from New York for much of the summer. Chicago, then Pemberley, and then Interlochen. A few days at Tanglewood. And then … I don’t remember. It’s hopeless.

I want to see her. No, I need to see her. But Elizabeth was no doubt working diligently on her presentation for the following day. He understood her quest for perfection, and knew that she would resent the interruption of an uninvited visitor.

But a quick phone call, wishing her luck—I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.

William went into his bedroom and opened his top dresser drawer. Extracting a small sheet of paper, he unfolded it and cradled it in his palm. He was glad that he hadn’t followed his first instinct and discarded her phone number after their argument at City Hall Park. He stood gazing out the French doors at his rain-soaked balcony and dialed the number.

Elizabeth’s answering machine picked up the call.

“Hello, Elizabeth? It’s William. William Darcy.” Oh, great. This is starting out just like the last message I left. “I just called to wish you—”

“Hello, William?” She sounded breathless.

His heart thudded. “Oh, you’re there. Am I disturbing you?”

“No, it’s okay. I’m just letting the machine get the calls so I can see if it’s someone I want to talk to.”

And apparently I’m in that category. “I know you’re busy and I won’t keep you from your work.”

“Actually, I could use a little break.”

“Then my timing is excellent.” He settled onto the sofa in front of the fireplace. “How is your work going?”

“I’ve completely revamped the presentation twice so far today. Laura’s going to kill me for making all these changes.”

“I’m sure she’ll be proud of you.”

“Thank you. That’s so sweet of you.”

William smiled and let those words settle over him like a warm blanket. He didn’t realize he hadn’t answered her until she spoke again. “What have you been doing today while I’ve been slaving away on an overheating laptop?”

“Practicing, mostly.” William took a deep breath and summoned his courage. “You mentioned needing a break.”

“Yes?”

“What if I were to show up at your door in about an hour and take you to dinner?”

After a pause during which William could have sworn his heart paused its beating, she answered. “That sounds wonderful, but I really can’t spare that much time.”

“We could go someplace quick and casual.” He didn’t know of any restaurants matching that description, but Sonya and her encyclopedic knowledge of New York were only a phone call away.

“Even so, I can’t. I still have so much work to do. I’m sorry, really.”

Elizabeth sounded sincerely disappointed, but he couldn’t trust his instincts, not after misreading her so completely in the recent past. She was probably just trying to get rid of him politely. “It’s fine,” he said, a familiar weight settling in his chest. “I should probably let you get back to—”

“But I’d love to have dinner with you some other time. If you wanted to.”

“I want to.” The words were out of his mouth before his brain had finished processing her statement. “What about tomorrow?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, but I have to work.”

“Tuesday?”

“I have to work then too. But I have Wednesday night off.”

Damn. “I’m leaving for Chicago Wednesday morning.”

“Our schedules are a disaster, aren’t they?”

“So it seems. Are you sure you can’t go out tonight?”

She hesitated. “I’d probably end up spending half the evening worrying about the work I wasn’t getting done.”

“All right, then, we’ll have to find a time after I get back from Chicago.”

“I’d like that. You know, it’s funny. All this talk about dinner has made me hungry.”

“Me too.” William kicked off his shoes and propped his feet on the coffee table, grateful that neither Mrs. Reynolds nor his grandmother could see this major breach of decorum

“And I have the weirdest craving for tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. That was my favorite meal when I was a little girl. I guess I’m nervous, so I’m craving comfort food.”

He could easily imagine her as a child: her curls flying around her face, her eyes flashing with mischief. “Is that what you’re going to have for dinner?” he asked. “Grilled cheese and soup?”

“I wish. We’re missing a few of the essentials, like tomato soup, bread, and cheese. Things have been a little crazy lately, and grocery shopping was one of the casualties. I’ll probably skip dinner and just make a pot of coffee.”

“That doesn’t sound healthy. Couldn’t you order something and have it delivered?”

“I’ll be fine, really. I’ll have a good meal tomorrow at the restaurant where I work.” She paused. “But I guess I should really get back to work.”

“Then I won’t keep you. Good luck tomorrow.”

“Thank you. And, William?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really glad you called.”

“I’ll call you again tomorrow night, to see how your presentation went. Goodbye, Elizabeth.”

“Bye.”

William hung up the phone. It struck him how different their lives were. She was skipping dinner because she hadn’t had time to go to the grocery store. When he was hungry, he simply spoke to Mrs. Reynolds, and a meal appeared a short time later.

He decided to have his dinner now, and then get back to practicing. Both Georgie and Rose were away for the evening, so he would be dining alone in his sitting room. But rather than call Mrs. Reynolds on the house phone as he would ordinarily have done, he trotted down the staircase to the kitchen. He had another matter to discuss with her.

 

About an hour later, Elizabeth was sipping black coffee and frowning at the latest version of her presentation. The phone rang. As she had done before, she allowed the answering machine to pick up the call. This time, she heard Charlotte’s voice.

“Come on, Liz. I know you’re there. Pick up.”

Elizabeth hurried to the phone. “Hi, Char. You know me too well.”

“You all ready for tomorrow?”

“Yes and no. Any sage advice, oh exalted doctoral student?”

“Leave your thesis alone, put on something sexy, and go out and party. You’ll probably do better tomorrow if you have some fun tonight.”

“As a matter of fact, I turned down not one, but two dinner invitations for tonight. From cousins, no less.”

“Bad form, Liz. You should have accepted both invitations and then asked if they’d be interested in some three-way action.

“Very funny. If you don’t make it as an academic, you have a great career ahead of you in stand-up comedy.”

“Don’t think I haven’t considered it. Tell me more about these kinky cousins.”

“One is named Richard Fitzwilliam. Handsome, wealthy, and charming.”

“Well, I can see certainly why you turned him down.”

“He was charming in a bad boy sort of way, but I could tell he was mentally undressing me.”

“Good Lord, he sounds perfect. Is he tall enough for me?”

“I think so.”

“I’m going to have to come to New York for a visit. And the other cousin?”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “William Darcy.”

“You’re kidding.”

“There was a reception last night after that recital I told you about, and we … well, I guess you’d say we declared a truce.”

“Glad to hear it. You should have accepted his dinner invite; bet he would have taken you someplace incredible. But considering how you feel about him, I can’t say I’m surprised that you turned him down.”

How I feel about him. I wish I knew. “Actually, I wanted to go. But I thought I’d better stay home tonight and work.”

“You wanted to go out to dinner with William Darcy? Apparently I’ve missed some developments. Do tell.”

Elizabeth was spared explanations by a knock at the door. “Hold on a sec. I’ll be right back.”

When Elizabeth opened the door, she was astonished to see Allen, the Darcys’ driver, standing in the hallway. He held a dripping umbrella in one hand and a large picnic basket decorated with festive ribbons in the other.

“Good evening, Ms. Bennet.”

“Hello, Allen.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t buzz you from the intercom downstairs. My hands were full, and someone let me in while I was juggling things.”

“Oh, that’s fine. But why are you here?”

“Mr. Darcy asked me to bring you this.”

Elizabeth stared at the basket and then looked up at Allen expectantly.

“He wrote a note explaining everything,” Allen said. He reached into the pocket of his rain-spotted jacket and extracted a cream-colored envelope, which he handed to Elizabeth. She tore the envelope open and read:

Dear Elizabeth,

You wouldn’t let me take you out to dinner tonight, but at least I can send dinner to you. I didn’t like the idea of you surviving on nothing but coffee, so I asked my housekeeper to fix you some “comfort food.”

I was tempted to make this delivery myself, but I don’t want to distract you from your work. I hope you enjoy your dinner, and I wish you all the best tomorrow.

With warmest regards,

William Darcy

Elizabeth looked up from the note. She was almost too astounded to find the right words. “Please thank William—um, Mr. Darcy—for me. Tell him … well, just tell him that this was very kind of him. Oh, and please … please thank the housekeeper too.”

“Of course, Ms. Bennet.”

“And thank you for coming out in the rain to deliver it.”

He shook his head with a smile. “No need to thank me, Miss. I was happy to do it.”

Allen handed Elizabeth the basket and turned to go. She shut the door and returned to the kitchen, setting the basket on the counter to unload it. When she opened the first container of food and saw the contents, her eyes grew soft and an audible sigh escaped her lips. How could someone so charming have ever seemed cold and arrogant?

Her eyes fell on the telephone sitting on the counter. She had completely forgotten Charlotte. She grabbed the receiver. “Char, I’m sorry I kept you waiting. You won’t believe what just happened.”

 

Late Monday night, Elizabeth rushed back to her apartment. Her eyes were bleary from lack of sleep and her feet ached from a long shift at the restaurant, but her mind raced with restless energy. She checked the clock in the kitchen; it was nearly 10:30.

Elizabeth was in the bedroom undressing when the telephone rang. She threw an oversized tee shirt over her head and sprinted to the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Elizabeth, it’s William.”

“Oh, hi, William.” Elizabeth was proud of her deliberately casual tone. As if I didn’t hurry back here so I wouldn’t miss his call.

“How did things go today?”

“Great. I just have some minor editing to do on the thesis and then I’m done!”

“Congratulations. I’m glad it went well.”

“And, William, I can’t thank you enough for the dinner last night. That was so sweet of you. If I’d known your phone number, I would have called.”

“I’m glad you liked it. Did everything taste the way you remembered it?”

“Better. That was a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich!”

“Mrs. Reynolds said something about using a few different varieties of cheese.”

Elizabeth sat down at the kitchen table. “It was delicious, and so was the tomato soup. And the salad, and the apple pie, too. Please thank her for me.”

“I will. By the way, I had the same thing for dinner.”

“You’re kidding! I thought rich people ate gourmet food every night.”

“Remember, you said it was a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich.”

Elizabeth laughed. “True. But I don’t see you as being a grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup kind of guy.”

“You made it sound so good that I couldn’t resist. And since you wouldn’t let me take you out, it was the closest I could come to having dinner with you last night.”

Elizabeth was touched by the sincerity in his voice, but she wasn’t sure what to say in response, so she changed the subject. “By the way, I traded shifts for tomorrow.”

“So we can have dinner after all?”

“No, I still have to work. But I arranged to get off a little early. I thought maybe we could meet for coffee, if you’re interested.”

“I’d like that.” The pleasure in William’s voice was obvious. “Did you have a specific place in mind?”

“There’s a little café in the Village that I love, called La Lanterna di Vittorio. It’s on MacDougal, not far from Washington Square. Would that be okay?”

“Absolutely. What time shall I pick you up?”

“I work nearby, so I’ll just meet you there. I can be there by 9:30, or maybe a little earlier.”

“I’ll see you at 9:30, then.”

Elizabeth yawned. “I’m sorry. I stayed up too late last night, and I’ve been on the go constantly since dawn.”

“Then I should let you go get some sleep.”

“I guess so.” Elizabeth didn’t really want to end the call, but she was exhausted. “So I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Good night, Elizabeth. I hope you sleep well.”

“Good night.”

Elizabeth hung up the phone. I have a date with William Darcy. She shook her head, smiling. Just a month ago, William had been a remote figure, one she admired from afar. Three weeks ago, she had considered him an arrogant snob, though she couldn’t deny feeling an unwelcome attraction to him. And now, she felt … What? I admire him. And I like him. But what if the other William is still lurking somewhere? I can’t trust him. Not yet.

 

Tuesday evening, William felt the knots in his stomach tighten as he stood on the sidewalk outside La Lanterna di Vittorio waiting for Elizabeth. Greenwich Village hummed with activity on such a balmy summer evening. A steady stream of people sauntered past William on the sidewalk. Cab drivers jockeyed for position, their horns blaring at one another and at pedestrians foolish enough to venture into the crosswalk.

William checked his watch for at least the tenth time in as many minutes. It was 9:37, and Elizabeth had said that she would arrive by 9:30. What if she changed her mind? Maybe she remembered all the reasons she hates me.

He was disgusted with his inability to control his nerves. You’d think I’d never been on a date before. He had spent at least fifteen minutes standing in his dressing room, wearing nothing but boxer shorts while he earnestly contemplated three pairs of trousers: gray dress slacks, tan chinos, and jeans. He had finally opted for the middle-of-the-road choice, the chinos, along with a white button-down oxford shirt.

After extensive experimentation in the mirror, he had elected to leave his top two shirt buttons open instead of his usual one. He had even tried opening three buttons, but he had quickly re-fastened the bottom button with a derisive snort. All he had needed to complete that look was a long gold chain and a pair of leather pants so tight he couldn’t breathe.

His eyes followed a large group passing by on the sidewalk, every one of them dressed in black. He glanced down at his decidedly non-black clothes. I might as well have worn a pair of bright green golf pants. All that effort for nothing.

And it wasn’t just his wardrobe that had received extra attention. Richard would have hooted at the sight of William frowning at the mirror, trying to tame a few locks of hair that insisted on falling onto his forehead. Now I know what Sonya’s talking about when she says she’s having a bad hair day. And why did I have to cut myself shaving? Twice?

William checked his watch again. 9:39. She’s not coming. I should have known better than to think she could forgive me so easily.

Then he saw Elizabeth approaching. He swallowed hard and reached up to straighten his tie, belatedly recalling that he wasn’t wearing one. He let out a miserable little groan when he saw that she was dressed entirely in black, but as she came closer he groaned again for an entirely different reason. Her sleeveless turtleneck clung to her body, and her knee-length skirt hugged the curves of her hips. Her hair was pulled back into a casual ponytail, and she appeared to be wearing little or no make-up. Unlike most of the women he knew, she had a natural, unaffected beauty that he found extremely appealing.

Her face lit up when she saw him, and a new knot formed in his stomach. “Hi, William,” she said. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting. I was a few minutes late getting off work. Have you been waiting long?”

“Not long.” Half an hour, but she didn’t need to know that.

She stepped forward until their bodies almost touched. “Thank you again for the dinner the other night,” she said softly. “That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.”

He wanted desperately to kiss her, and he sensed that she would allow it. But he seemed frozen in place, gazing longingly at her lips. What is it about this woman that turns me into a gauche 14-year-old?

“William? Is something wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I was … never mind. Shall we go inside?”

They climbed the steps to the café, and were soon seated at a small table near the fireplace.

“I’ve spent hours here studying,” she said. “Especially on winter nights. The fireplaces are always lit when it’s chilly out, and it’s so quiet and warm. And the coffee is good.”

La Lanterna cafe “Mmm.” William looked around at the dimly-lit room, noting the scuffed wood floor, the unmatched tables and chairs, and the dark brick walls. Over half of the tables were occupied, yet the room was quiet as people carried on conversations in low, confidential tones. A Mozart symphony played softly in the background. The delicious fragrance of strong coffee permeated the room.

A few minutes later, they sat sipping double cappuccinos with a thick layer of foam. “Isn’t it good?” she asked.

“Yes.” He choked out the word; she had caught him with a mouth full of steaming liquid.

“By the way, the desserts are delicious too, especially the tiramisu. I think you could gain weight just looking at all the goodies they serve.”

Great. I never even asked her if she wanted dessert. I’m sure I’m impressing her with my manners. “Did you want to get dessert?”

“No, thanks. I had dinner at work, and I’m not really hungry. But if you want something …”

“No.” His nervous stomach rebelled at the prospect of food.

Silence fell at the table, and they exchanged awkward smiles as they drank their cappuccinos. He tried to think of something to say, but his mind went blank as he watched her lick a small dollop of foam off her upper lip. Heat roared through him as he imagined her tongue exploring his mouth, and then darting into his ear. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“We were unusually busy at the restaurant tonight, for a Tuesday,” she said, her comment wrenching his mind from dangerous territory. “We had a large party, all women. It was an informal reunion for a bunch of NYU graduates who were in the same sorority at about the same time. They seemed to have a lot of fun.”

“Where do you work?”

“At the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a little French restaurant a few blocks from here. We serve French country food in a casual setting; probably not the kind of dining experience you’re used to. But the food is good, and it’s friendly and relaxed, nothing like those pretentious places where they think they’re doing you a favor by acknowledging your existence. You know, restaurants like Daniel. Or at least I’ve heard it’s like that. I’ve never been there.”

William bit his lip. Daniel was one of his favorite restaurants. In fact, he had intended to take her there for dinner. He scrambled to find something to say. “I assume you’re the hostess. Or a manager.”

“No.” A fleeting frown crossed her face. “I’m a server.”

“Oh.” He stared into his coffee cup, silently berating himself.

“I’ve worked in restaurants off and on ever since my last year of high school. It can be hard work, but I kind of enjoy it. And it works well if you’re a student and need your days free.”

William hated the thought of Elizabeth, with all her energy and talent, being forced to depend on the whims of others for her livelihood. Waiters and waitresses were the sort of anonymous people he scarcely noticed: they were necessary, but of no real importance. He wished fervently that he could tell her to quit her job, that he would happily write her a check for twice what she would make carrying heavy trays and filling water glasses. Maybe someday.

 

How long have we been here? Elizabeth wondered. She surreptitiously checked her watch and found that they had been together for only half an hour. It seemed longer. Much longer.

Every attempt she made at starting a conversation generated either a terse reply from William, or no response at all. His expression had been grim ever since they had entered the café, and if anything, it was getting worse. And his glacial disdain over her job was all too evident. Why did I ever think we would have anything in common?

She had felt a swarm of butterflies in her stomach while walking to the café, recalling the warmth and intimacy they had shared the previous Saturday night at the reception. He looked wonderful in his expensive but casual clothes, which emphasized his height and his lean form. The few curls that had strayed onto his forehead lent his face a boyish appeal, and she had caught herself more than once staring in fascination at the small glimpses of his chest afforded by the open neck of his shirt. But physical attraction isn’t enough, and apparently that’s all we have.

She pushed her empty coffee cup away and stood up, grabbing her purse. “William, I have to go.”

He looked up at her, a befuddled expression on his face. “But it’s still early.”

“I have a busy day tomorrow.”

“Have another cappuccino.”

“No, thanks.”

“Or some of that tiramisu you mentioned. Don’t go so soon.”

Elizabeth sighed. She was going to have to be blunt. “This was a mistake. Let’s just admit it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let’s be honest. You’re not enjoying yourself. I should never have suggested this place. It was a dumb idea, coming here.”

“There’s nothing wrong with this place.”

“Oh, come on. You walked in and looked around, and I saw the expression on your face. It’s okay, really, I understand. You’re accustomed to plush surroundings where the riffraff aren’t welcome. Which shows how little we have in common.”

“Elizabeth—”

“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. William Darcy and a waitress … it doesn’t fit. You live in a world of champagne and caviar and elegant women in designer gowns. I take the subway and wait on tables, and I buy my clothes in resale shops.”

“But—”

“I’m not ashamed of any of that, but I can see why it’s a problem for you. Goodbye, William.”

He jumped from his seat and grabbed her hand. “No. Don’t go.”

She was surprised to see something in his eyes that looked like desperation. After a moment of hesitation, she allowed herself to be led back to the table. She sat down and waited silently for explanations.

“I’m sorry,” he began. “I know I’ve totally screwed things up this evening.”

“This isn’t an issue of blame or anybody screwing up. We’re different, too different to be compatible. We’ve known that from the start.”

“Please, let me say this.”

“Okay.” It was difficult to refuse him anything when his warm brown eyes pleaded for her cooperation.

“You’re right that I haven’t really been enjoying myself tonight. But it’s not because I don’t like the café, or because I don’t want to be here with you, or because you’re a waitress.”

“Then why?”

“I’ve made so many mistakes with you,” he continued, “and I know this is my last chance. I wanted so much for tonight to be perfect, and that made me nervous.”

“Well, I’m a little nervous too.”

“I’m more than a little nervous. I’m terrified of making another mistake. And because of that, I’ve done everything wrong.”

She wondered why she hadn’t noticed the tension in his body before: his ramrod straight posture, his hands clasped tightly together on the table, his face tight and anxious. “And apparently when you get nervous you get quiet?”

“Yes. I mean, I’m usually quiet, but when I’m nervous it gets worse.”

“I’m the opposite. When I’m nervous, I talk.”

He shrugged. “Then we’re a perfect pair. You can talk, and I’ll listen.”

She smiled in spite of herself. “But what about the rest? I don’t think we have much in common.”

“I think we do. We like to walk on the beach. We have almost the same color hair. We like our cappuccino with extra foam.”

His bashful smile charmed her. “Well …”

“We’re both perfectionists.”

“True.”

“And we love music.” He slid his chair closer and leaned toward her. “And I don’t just mean that we enjoy it. I mean that it speaks to our souls. Not everyone feels that.”

“I know.”

She couldn’t resist his intense brown eyes and his low voice, as dark and rich as the espresso in her cup. He reached out to caress her cheek, and she held her breath. Slowly, so slowly, he moved toward her, and her eyes fluttered closed.

At first, his mouth barely brushed hers, teasing and tantalizing, but then the pressure of his lips increased slightly. This gentle assault on her senses devastated her resistance, rendering her oblivious to their surroundings. As his warm lips lingered on hers, her hand stole up to touch the warm skin of his jaw.

He drew back from her slightly and looked into her eyes. “You see,” he murmured, “we have some things in common.”

She reached up and smoothed the curls off his forehead, curls that she had been longing to touch since that first weekend in San Francisco. He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose, and then his lips brushed hers again.

Suddenly she drew back, glancing around her self-consciously as she remembered that they were in a public place. William, by contrast, seemed to be relaxing at last.

“I have a suggestion,” he said, sitting back in his chair.

“Hmm?”

“Why don’t we order another round of cappuccinos and get to know each other better. Maybe we’ll find some other things we have in common.”

She smiled and nodded. “Okay.”

“And I think I want to try that tiramisu after all. Shall I get some for both of us?”

“Could you get two forks with yours?”

He sighed. “I know this routine. Georgie does it all the time. You don’t want one of your own, but you’ll end up eating most of mine.” He dropped his air of mock disgust and grinned at her. “I suppose that could be arranged.”

 

“You’re kidding! She was still standing there when you came out of the men’s room?” Elizabeth asked, a broad smile on her face.

William continued his story of an encounter with a persistent fan. “I suppose I should have just walked past her. I’m sure she wasn’t dangerous. But all I could think to do was to go back in and wait till she was gone. So there I was, hanging around the men’s room, and pretty soon I noticed another man hanging around too. He was checking me out.”

“And not because he wanted your autograph.”

“I don’t think he recognized me. Besides, he wasn’t looking at my face.”

They laughed together. Once their initial clumsy start was behind them, they had fallen into relaxed conversation, sharing stories of their experiences as musicians. William couldn’t remember ever spending a more enjoyable evening.

“Are you sure you’re not just making that up?” she asked.

“No, I swear it’s true. Not to change the subject, but I think I want another cappuccino. How about you?”

“I’d better not. I’m on caffeine overload as it is.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, my gosh. It’s after 1:00 am! I had no idea it was so late.”

“Neither did I. But, then, I’m a night owl.”

“So am I.”

“Something else we have in common,” he remarked with a lazy grin.

“All right, all right, you win. We have lots of things in common! But I want to get up early tomorrow and finish editing to my thesis before my shift at the restaurant.”

“And I leave for Chicago in the morning.” He sighed. “I guess we’d better get going. Let me call Allen.”

“Where is he?”

“Somewhere nearby, I suppose. He didn’t know exactly when I’d need him.”

“Poor Allen. Do you always keep him up so late?”

William had never really thought about it. He pulled out his cell phone and spoke to Allen briefly.

“He’s out in front waiting for us.”

“Does he like cappuccino? Should we buy him one?”

“Um …” William had no idea how Allen felt about cappuccino.

“But I suppose it’s too late, because of the caffeine.”

They exited the café together. As they drove away, Elizabeth asked Allen about his evening while William listened. I’ve never thought about what he does while he’s waiting for me.

“Have you gotten any more job offers?” William asked. He had avoided bringing up the subject all evening, dreading the news he would probably hear, but he had to know.

“My roommate called me at work to tell me that I got a call from Pacific Conservatory. I’m surprised; I didn’t think I was going to hear from them.”

“Did they offer you a job?”

“The restaurant was so busy I didn’t have time to return the call. But I’ll contact them tomorrow.”

His spirits plunged. Even though he had set it in motion, the reality that she would be leaving New York was a distressing blow, especially after such a wonderful evening.

“When do you get back from Chicago?” she asked.

“Next Monday night. And speaking of that, are you free for dinner next Tuesday?”

“I’m supposed to work, but maybe I can switch with someone and get the night off.”

“So we’ll plan on it, tentatively at least?”

“Yes. I’ll see what I can do about swapping shifts.”

They reached her building much too soon. This time she made no attempt to discourage him from accompanying her into the building. They stepped onto the elevator together, exchanging shy smiles.

When they reached her door, she turned to face him. “Well, I should say goodnight. It’s late, and I really do need to get up in the morning. And it sounds like you do too.”

“Of course. I understand.” He was disappointed not to be invited in, but not really surprised.

“I had a wonderful time tonight.” She slipped her hand into his.

“So did I,” he said quietly, stepping forward until their bodies touched lightly. Elizabeth was effectively trapped between William and the door to her apartment, but she didn’t seem to mind. She stood quietly, her fingers entwined with his, and gazed steadily into his eyes.

He needed no further encouragement. He bent his head and captured her lips in a slow, languorous kiss. She leaned against him, sighing softly as her lips moved against his. Releasing her hand, he wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her tightly against him. It felt even better to hold her than he remembered from their dance in San Francisco; she was exquisitely soft and warm, yet she felt smaller and more fragile in his arms than he had recalled.

He felt the delicious sensation of her hands sliding up his chest, and he heard himself groan, a rumbling sound deep in his chest, as heat flared through his body. He reluctantly released her and stepped away.

“Good night, Elizabeth,” he said softly. “I’ll call you from Chicago.”

“Good night.”

She stood looking at him, her lips parted, her eyes warm. He was on the verge of pulling her into his arms for another, more passionate kiss when she turned away to unlock the door to her apartment. She glanced back at him, smiled, and slipped inside, closing the door behind her and leaving him alone in the dimly lit hallway.

 

An unfamiliar impulse caused William to ignore Allen’s attempt to open the back door for him; he settled himself in the front passenger seat instead. When Allen resumed his place behind the steering wheel, he paused and looked at William, his brow furrowed.

“Is everything all right, sir?” Allen asked.

“Everything’s fine.”

“If I may ask, did you and Miss Bennet enjoy your evening?”

“Yes, we did.”

“She seems like a lovely young lady.”

William smiled. He could still feel the pressure of her body against his. “She is.”

The car glided smoothly along, the inhabitants silent. At last William spoke again. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting for me for so long.”

“No need to apologize. That’s my job.”

“But you could have spent a quiet evening at home until I needed you. We need to work out a system.”

Allen shot a glance at William, the confusion on his face evident. “Ah … yes, sir.”

“Oh, and I was wondering. How do you feel about cappuccino?”