William’s alarm clock buzzed, and he flinched. He squinted at the clock in confusion and then whacked the snooze button with far more energy than the task required. His head dropped back onto his pillow as he attempted to cling to the tantalizing shreds of his dream before they dissolved entirely.

I wish she were here right now, asleep in my arms. I’d hold her and watch her sleep for a while. Then I’d kiss her awake and make love to her. And then … then I’d make love to her again.

The previous evening had been one of the best of his life. They had talked, laughed, danced, kissed … and kissed some more. He burrowed deeper into the softness of the bed and smiled, replaying some of his favorite momens.

Unwilling to force Elizabeth to face down the gauntlet of curious women in his house, he had made no attempt to entice her to spend the night. Back at her apartment, she had invited William in for a cup of coffee, and his hopes had soared.

Unfortunately, they had entered the apartment to discover Sally lying face down on the couch, sobbing into a throw pillow. Elizabeth’s sympathetic but persistent questioning had finally uncovered the problem: Sally and her boyfriend had broken up following a bitter argument, after which Sally had attempted to numb the pain with several tequila shooters.

William, far too frustrated to even feign concern for Sally, had reluctantly accompanied Elizabeth into the hall to say good night.

“I’m sorry we can’t have that coffee I promised, but she’s my friend and she’s really upset. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I’m not ready for this evening to end.” He put his hands on Elizabeth’s shoulders and drew them slowly down her arms, feeling her shiver slightly at his touch.

“I know,” she replied, looking into his eyes. “Neither am I. But Sally needs me.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’ve changed my mind about being her fan.”

Elizabeth laughed softly and lifted her hand to trace the dimple that had just appeared on his cheek. “Thank you for tonight. It was one of the nicest evenings I’ve ever spent.”

William had kissed her slowly and thoroughly after that.

At least I’m going to see her again tonight. He yawned and stretched, arching his back with a deep groan, and glanced at the clock. He had to get up soon, or he’d be late meeting Richard.

Elizabeth had initially said that she was busy tonight; a group of her friends were throwing her a farewell party. But while William still held her in his arms, basking in the aftermath of their sultry kiss, he had raised the question again.

“You’re leaving so soon, and I want to see you again before you go,” he said, gently smoothing a lock of hair away from her cheek.

“I can’t skip the party. I’m the guest of honor.”

His lips moved leisurely across her cheek toward her ear lobe. “Please?” he murmured in her ear.

“I suppose I could bring a date,” she replied in a small, shaky voice.

He had been left with no choice but to kiss her again.

They would have no privacy at the party, but later he would take her home. And then … Maybe I should offer Sally’s boyfriend a thousand dollars—or ten thousand, if that’s what it takes—to make up with her and take her back to his place for the night.

The alarm buzzed again. With a resigned sigh, William turned it off. He considered calling Richard to cancel their plans to run together in the park, but if he did that, Richard might assume that he was canceling because Elizabeth was in his bed. As much as he wished that were true, he didn’t want Richard leering about it.

He dragged himself upright, wincing as his usual morning headache thudded against his temples. The headaches and dizzy spells had grown markedly worse during his trip to Chicago, and he had finally asked Sonya to make an appointment with Dr. Rosemont under the guise of a normal check-up.

Okay, time to get moving. He quickly dressed, laced up his running shoes, swallowed some ibuprofen tablets, and headed downstairs.

 

Central Park bannerCentral Park is Manhattan’s shared back yard, with 843 acres of woods and meadows, ponds and plazas, greens and gardens. The park’s various attractions range from an ice rink and an antique carousel to Strawberry Fields, a John Lennon memorial. New Yorkers play sports, attend concerts, and even get married there. Some of the most desirable real estate in Manhattan rings the park, with the privileged few who live on the perimeter locked in perennial combat over the relative merits of a view from Central Park West on the Upper West Side, versus one from Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side.

To William, the park had special meaning going back to his childhood. It was there, in Richard’s company, that he had first tasted freedom of the sort that most nine-year-old boys take for granted, but that to William had been dazzling in its novelty: the chance to kick a soccer ball, to run a race, or to throw a baseball without sharp-eyed supervision and fearful admonitions. Even now, he experienced a sense of liberation whenever he stepped inside its low stone walls.

Central Park walking pathOn this morning in June, the park was populated with the usual assortment of dog walkers, cyclists, inline skaters, and joggers. William was grateful that the path he ran along was partially shaded; the morning sun was already warm, and a light sheen of sweat covered his skin.

As it turned out, he was running alone. Richard had called just before William left the house, asking to reschedule for the following morning. Richard hadn’t explained, but no doubt he was suffering from the after-effects of his previous night’s revels … that is, unless the revels were still in progress.

Central Park bench After twenty years of running in the park, William knew its paths intimately. Richard liked to run around the reservoir, which offered stunning city views, a well-maintained track, and plenty of female joggers. When William was alone, he preferred to head further north, where the paths wound through quiet woodlands. But he was beginning to question the wisdom of his decision to venture so far from home. His headache was growing worse, and he felt unsteady.

He slowed his pace to a walk and detoured onto a trail that he knew led to some benches a short distance away. Finally he dropped wearily onto a bench overlooking a pond.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat unmoving on the bench, elbows propped on his knees, his head resting in his hands, but finally his breathing began to slow and his head cleared. He sat up tentatively, waiting for the last of the dizziness to dissipate. At least the setting was tranquil, with willow trees dipping gracefully into the water and ducks and geese gliding along the glassy surface of the pond. He began to absently hum the opening theme from Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, its mood well suited to the sylvan landscape.

Central Park pondBut I can’t sit here humming forever. I have that meeting at ten o’clock, and Gran will have my head if I’m late. William didn’t carry his cell phone when he ran; he preferred not to have extraneous items rattling in his pockets. He had never had cause to regret that choice before. But this deep into the park without a phone, he had no option but to exit the same way he had entered—on foot—despite his fatigue and his still-throbbing head.

He rose slowly, testing his balance, and began to walk along a path that wound through the woods in the general direction of Fifth Avenue.

 

Elizabeth sat in the kitchen, sipping a cup of tea and staring at the yellow roses on the table. They were beginning to droop, but she hated the idea of discarding them.

She had awakened early, still in a euphoric haze, but as she had reflected on the evening, doubts and worries had begun to creep into her mind. What on earth was I thinking, inviting him in? I’m sure he considered it an invitation to stay the night, especially after all the kissing we did. And what was that about? I don’t ever act that way on second dates … or third or fourth dates, for that matter.

On the other hand … moonlight, orchids, Brahms, and chocolate mousse. And William Darcy. Who could resist all of that?

Without a doubt, William was more enticing than the other elements combined. He was charming, sincere, and quietly funny. Not only that, but he was polite in a courtly, almost old-fashioned way. And the way he looked in that tuxedo … I doubt any woman could have kept a level head last night.

Purple dendrobium orchidHer reverie was interrupted by the buzz of the intercom. It was Allen, William’s driver, with a delivery. She buzzed him into the building and waited in her apartment doorway. When he appeared and she saw the item in his hands, she let out a sentimental sigh. I should have guessed.

Allen made his delivery, politely refused her offer of a cup of coffee, and departed, leaving Elizabeth holding an envelope in one hand and the purple orchid she had admired last night in the other. She set the pot on the kitchen table, leaned against the counter, and tore the envelope open.

Dear Elizabeth,

This small token hardly seems an adequate “thank you” for one of the most enjoyable evenings I have ever spent. I am somewhat reluctant to part with this orchid—as I said last night, it reminds me of you—but it will give me pleasure to think of it living with you in your new home, perhaps reminding you in some small way of me.

Yours,

William

With a bittersweet smile, she set the note on the kitchen table beside the orchid. She retrieved his cell phone number from a slip of paper in her wallet and dialed, disappointed to get his voicemail but amused to hear Sonya’s voice inviting her to leave a message. He had told her that he didn’t know how to use his phone, beyond dialing and answering calls, and apparently he hadn’t been exaggerating. She left a quick message thanking him for the gift; she would thank him again that evening.

 

William stood in his bathroom, stripping off his sweat-drenched running clothes. His breathlessness and pallor had worried Mrs. Reynolds when she met him at the door, though he had assured her that he was merely tired.

It wasn’t true, and he knew it despite all his efforts to pretend otherwise. He frowned into the mirror, fingering a faint scar on one side of his chest. I’ve always known that this was inevitable. I just hoped it wouldn’t happen so soon.

He knew what Dr. Rosemont would tell him tomorrow. It was news he had no wish to hear, but three months of denial had accomplished nothing. Instead, his symptoms had gradually worsened until he could no longer ignore them.

I wish I had someone I could talk to. Georgie was too young, and Gran and Mrs. Reynolds had endured too much anxiety on his behalf in the past. He and Richard, despite their close friendship, maintained a fašade of manly bravado. Sonya was a possibility, but she would dole out straight talk, not the warmth and reassurance he craved. Elizabeth. If we were together, if she loved me, I could talk to her. I could share everything with her. But for now he would have to shoulder the burden alone.

What if she were here now, looking at me? Would she like what she saw? William ignored his drawn features and his unruly hair, and instead scrutinized his torso. As long as she’s not looking for a guy with bulging biceps, I should be okay. As a teenager, he had been tall and lanky—scrawny, if he was being honest with himself. But the passage of time, combined with a regimen of cautious weight training begun years ago at Richard’s urging, had filled out his chest and arms until he was satisfied with his appearance. William would never even come close to his cousin’s muscular build, but Richard had plenty of free time to spend at the gym and no restrictions on the forms of exercise he could undertake.

The lower half of his body was in excellent condition from running, with strong legs and a flat, taut abdomen. He turned, inspecting himself from behind in the mirror. More than one smitten female had used the word “cute” in reference to his buttocks, so he supposed he would pass inspection on that score.

His eyes fell on the one part of his anatomy he hadn’t yet assessed. Nothing to be ashamed of there either.

Then his eyes returned to the scar. He sighed and ran a finger along the pink mark, faded from the intervening years.

He crossed the room and turned on the shower. After adjusting the temperature, he stepped in, savoring the warmth of the water jetting onto his skin from the various nozzles. In his mind, he saw Elizabeth join him, gloriously naked. He drew her against him, and she began to stroke his chest, her lips caressing his scar.

“I’m here, William. We’ll get through this together,” his phantom Elizabeth whispered. Her words gave him comfort, while the exquisite sensation of her body against his, imaginary yet so vivid, awoke his raging need for her.

He had been aroused too often in the past 24 hours without relief, and he was reaching the breaking point. His soapy hands reached down to lather his hot, aching flesh. He closed his eyes, stroking himself with a firm grip as he imagined Elizabeth’s soft hands wrapped around him.

Every muscle in his body tensed, clamoring for release, as steam swirled around him. He scarcely felt the streams of hot water pulsing from the nozzles, his awareness riveted on the sharp, almost painful pleasure. At last he threw back his head, his groan echoing through the shower stall.

He slumped against the glass wall, little aftershocks of sensation darting through him. I can’t go on like this much longer.

 

On his way downstairs, William stopped by his sitting room for some papers and noticed a light flashing. To his surprise, the light was coming from his cell phone; he had a voicemail message. When he was in New York, this was a rare event; he received few calls on his phone, and even fewer messages. Sonya, Mrs. Reynolds, and his family members were well aware of his antipathy for his cell phone, and used it only when absolutely necessary. And no one else had the number, or at least that had been true until a few days ago.

His heart thudding, he picked up the phone, navigating the menus until he connected to voicemail. What is my password? He had an excellent memory, but for some reason his voicemail password refused to stay in his mind. Grinding his teeth, he bounded down the stairs to Sonya’s office.

Sonya arched her eyebrows. “Good morning, boss. How did it go last night?”

“Aside from the house seeming like Grand Central Station, it was perfect.”

“A few too many people around?” Sonya feigned an innocent expression.

“Don’t be coy. At least the other people who interrupted us didn’t do it intentionally.”

“You mean you still haven’t forgiven me for that?”

A reluctant grin pulled at the corners of William’s mouth. “I suppose sooner or later I’ll permit you to live it down.”

She checked the clock on her desk. “It’s almost time for the grant meeting. We’re all set, aren’t we?” Representatives from the New York City Public Schools were due at the house in a few minutes to discuss a project that the Darcy Arts Trust was to fund.

“I think so. But right now I need to know my voicemail password.”

She heaved a loud sigh, rolling her eyes. “You’ve forgotten it again? Don’t you think it’s kind of pathetic to be this much of a techno-idiot?”

“I’m not a techno-idiot. I just hate cell phones. You know that. I’ve never wanted to be instantly accessible to anyone and anybody who wants to talk to me. So what’s the password?”

She wrote six digits on a yellow Post-It and handed it to him. “Memorize this number. It’s not that hard. Maybe I should hire an eight-year-old to travel around with you and handle your phone. The kid could take care of your e-mail too.”

William turned to go. “Good idea,” he called over his shoulder. “If I can teach him to type a little bit and to sass me constantly, I won’t need you anymore.”

He passed through the doorway to his office, already entering his password on the cell phone’s keypad. By the time he sat down behind his desk he was listening to his voicemail. A pleased smile played around the corners of his mouth when he heard Elizabeth’s voice. Seized by the urge to talk to her at once, he dialed her number.

“Hello?” a raspy voice croaked.

“May I please speak to Elizabeth?”

“She’s not here.”

“This is William Darcy. Is this Sally?”

“I think so, but I wouldn’t swear to it.”

“How are you feeling this morning?” Not that he actually cared. He was still holding a grudge over last night.

“Let’s not discuss unpleasant subjects.”

Sally—no surprise—seemed to have a wicked hangover. “Sorry to disturb you when you’re … not feeling your best. Do you know when Elizabeth will be back?”

“No. She left a note saying she’d be out running errands for a while. Wanna leave a message? Please say ‘no,’ because my vision is so blurry that anything I wrote would probably look like hieroglyphics.”

“That’s okay. I’ll see her tonight anyway.”

“You don’t mean that you’re coming to the party?”

“Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”

“I … I’m just surprised she—no, never mind. Guess I’ll see ya tonight, then.”

William hung up the phone, puzzling over Sally’s reaction. He looked up to see Rose standing at the door to his office. “Good morning, Gran.”

“Mrs. Reynolds said you didn’t look well after your run.”

“I’m fine,” William replied in a tone that discouraged further questions.

“Are you ready for the meeting with the school district people?”

“Yes. I assume we’re going to meet in the library.”

“Mrs. Reynolds has coffee and tea in there, if you want some. Did you enjoy your evening?”

“Yes, very much.”

“I appreciate that you and Ms. Bennet took some time to speak with me. I know you weren’t enthusiastic about that plan, and I’m sure Ms. Bennet felt the same way.”

“Actually, she was the one who talked me into going downstairs to see you.” William usually went out of his way to show Rose respect, but in this case he didn’t hide his annoyance. “If it had been up to me, we would have stayed on the roof until it was time to leave. I think I’m old enough to choose my own friends without your help.”

Rose disregarded his sarcasm. “I must tell you that I am concerned about this situation. You seem quite taken with this young woman, yet we know very little about her or her family.”

“Elizabeth told you she was moving to California in a few days. I would have thought that would have been all you needed to hear. She won’t be here, so you can stop worrying.”

She paused, scrutinizing him carefully. “On another subject, I need you to represent us at the Dalton Foundation reception tonight.”

“I’m sorry, Gran, but I have plans this evening.”

“I’m afraid you’ll need to change them. Joanna Barton’s husband died, and the viewing is tonight. Of course I have to be there.”

He clenched his jaw. “Couldn’t you just go from there to the Dalton event?”

“Certainly not. I’d have to change clothes in between, so I’d be much too late arriving. And in any case, Joanna is one of my oldest friends. I cannot desert her to drink champagne at a gala reception.”

“Then just skip it. The Daltons will understand why you couldn’t be there.”

“They won’t understand why you couldn’t attend in my place.”

“But, Gran, …” William knew he sounded like a whiny child, but he was desperate to avoid attending the reception. It was bad enough that it would keep him away from Elizabeth’s party. In addition, Mitzi Dalton was determined to seduce him, and no amount of discouragement seemed to deter her. But how do I tell my grandmother that I can’t go because I’m afraid of being molested by the hostess?

“Someone from the family needs to be there. Eleanor and Robert are in the Hamptons, and I certainly can’t send Richard after what happened last year.”

He almost snickered at this reminder. Mitzi, frustrated by William’s rebuffs, had turned her eye on Richard, who had been receptive to the advances of the curvaceous blonde. Her husband had caught them together in an upstairs bedroom, and Richard was now persona non grata at the Dalton home.

“All right,” he sighed, “I’ll go. But only for a quick appearance. Then I’m leaving.”

“I suppose that will suffice. I assume your plans have something to do with Ms. Bennet?”

“Yes. But tonight is probably the last time I’ll see her in a long while, so you needn’t worry.” He was unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“William …” Rose began, her voice gentle. Then she shook her head and sighed. “The reception starts at 8:30. Black tie.”

Both the time—the same starting time as Elizabeth’s party—and the dress code interfered with his plans, but he knew that he had lost the battle. “Please give Mrs. Barton my condolences when you see her.”

“I will. Shall we go downstairs?”

“You go ahead, Gran. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Rose departed, leaving a thoroughly frustrated William alone in his office. Fate seemed to be conspiring to keep him apart from Elizabeth. But from another perspective, he had only himself to blame. Had he stayed out of her job situation, she wouldn’t be leaving New York.

The house phone rang. It was Mrs. Reynolds, informing him of the arrival of their visitors. His expression dark and brooding, he trudged downstairs to join the group assembling in the library.

 

“No, you simply can’t go yet. I won’t hear of it. For one thing, you haven’t played for me, and you know how I adore hearing you play. Why don’t we get you some more champagne, and then you can play something.”

William’s lips compressed in a thin line as Mitzi Dalton grasped his arm, her eyes devouring him. It was almost 9:30, and he was still trapped at the reception despite several attempts to make a polite exit.

“Mitzi, you know I rarely play at parties.”

“No problem. I have a new piano upstairs. Did I tell you that? Let me take you up to see it. You can give me a private performance.” Her half-lidded stare made it clear what sort of performance she had in mind.

Drawing his protective cloak of indifferent reserve tightly around him, he replied, “No, thank you. And in any case, as I’ve told you several times, I have another event to attend.”

“Now, what could another party offer that you can’t get right here?” She stepped closer and glanced seductively at the plunging neckline of her red dress, clearly inviting his perusal. “As your hostess, I’ll to do anything to make sure you enjoy yourself. And I do mean anything,” she purred.

One of the caterers approached Mitzi to ask a question, and William took the opportunity to escape while her attention was diverted. He sprinted out the door and into the elevator, taking a deep breath. Free at last.

He whipped out his cell phone and dialed Allen’s number. His expression grew dark as Allen explained that he was outside the Bartons’ building waiting for Rose and couldn’t come to fetch William at the moment. That left two unattractive choices: to wait for Allen, further delaying his arrival at Elizabeth’s party, or to try to hail a cab.

Okay, a cab it is. William returned his cell phone to his pocket and stepped to the curb, scanning oncoming traffic for an available taxi.

 

Forty-five minutes later, William was seated in yet another cab, finally on his way to Elizabeth’s party. Everything that could possibly go wrong had happened that evening. If I were a cartoon character, steam would be pouring out of my ears right now.

It had taken an inordinate amount of time to get a cab at Mitzi’s building, despite the doorman’s assistance. Once back at his house, he had raced up the steps, taking them two at a time, yanking off his jacket and bow tie as he strode down the hall to his bedroom.

William had changed clothes quickly, only to discover a small tear in the armhole of the new black sweater he had purchased earlier that afternoon at Saks. His frustration had begun to hover around the boiling point, but he had retained sufficient composure to ask Mrs. Reynolds for help. A needle, black thread, and a quick but skillful repair by his faithful housekeeper had set William’s world back on its axis again, at least temporarily. Now he was in his second cab of the evening, amidst a sea of bright taillights and car horns. Judging from the flashing lights and police cars ahead, they were being delayed by a roadblock of some sort.

His jaw muscles ached from all the clenching they had been called upon to do this evening. He pressed his lips together tightly, exhaling loudly through flared nostrils as he thought of the evening as he had originally imagined it unfolding. It should have started with him picking Elizabeth up at her apartment, and ended back there with her falling asleep in his arms.

Traffic ahead of them was finally beginning to move, but William felt a sense of hopelessness. The cab driver picked that moment to prove him right by asking a simple question.

“Where you go?”

William frowned for a moment, interpreted the driver’s slightly fractured English, and then answered, “I told you already. MetroMania. It’s a club in SoHo.”

“I know SoHo. Don’t know Metronia.”

William reached into his pocket to retrieve his cell phone and call Allen, and discovered that in his haste he hadn’t transferred the phone from his tuxedo pocket. This just keeps getting better.

“Just take me to SoHo,” William snapped. “I’ll find it once I’m there.”

He sat back in his seat, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes blazing with frustration. What a wonderful way to spend an evening, especially since it’s my last evening in New York with the woman I love.

But at leasat once I get there, it will all be worth it. This thought proved to be a soothing balm for his soul, and soon a much calmer William Darcy stared out the window of the cab as it progressed toward SoHo … and Elizabeth.