“Are you finished packing?”

“I wish,” Elizabeth sighed.

Jon Prentiss, with whom she was currently dancing, chuckled. “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow, eh?”

“I’ve done some of it,” she retorted. “They’re not coming to pick up my stuff till first thing Friday morning, so I have all day and all night tomorrow to finish up.”

“That’s a depressing way to spend your last night in New York. If I didn’t have to work, I’d come over and keep you company.”

“Actually, I already turned down an offer from … someone else to do exactly that. I’m better off on my own; I’ll get more done if I don’t have any distractions.” She scanned the room as she said this, frowning and nibbling her lower lip.

“Speaking of distractions, where is he?”

“Where is who?”

“Don’t be coy, sweetie. I heard all about Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sexy. A private dinner at his place last night? Sounds positively delicious.”

“It was.” Elizabeth barely suppressed a sentimental sigh. No need to give Jon additional fodder to use in teasing her.

“Excellent. It’s not every day a friend of mine lands a rich Upper East Side type, much less one who’s famous.”

“I haven’t landed anybody. We’ve just had a couple of dates.”

“Oh, sure.” He snickered, twirling her in a tight circle. “You forget, I’ve seen the Rose Garden Formerly Known as Your Apartment. Is there any color he hasn’t sent you?”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re making a big deal about nothing. As usual.”

“I hear he’s coming tonight, which explains who you’re all dressed up for.”

“I am not all dressed up.” Elizabeth’s protest sounded hollow even to her own ears.

“Mmm hmm.” He cast a sidelong glance at her. “Because you always wear your hair all fluffed out, and you wear lipstick, eye shadow, and mascara every single day. And your closet is just full of little blouses that show off your … assets.”

“Jon!” She felt her blush extending downward in the general direction of the aforementioned assets.

He chuckled. “Don’t be embarrassed. You’re gorgeous, and he’s going to think you look good enough to eat.”

“Thanks.” A little shiver ran down her spine.

“And speaking of eating, let’s get back to last night. Fabulous food, I’m sure.”

“Oh, yes. His housekeeper prepared an amazing feast.”

“And I assume I know what was for dessert.” His suggestive tone left no doubt of his meaning.

“Of course not. It was only our second date.”

“Why am I not surprised? You never let yourself have any fun.”

“For the millionth time, you and I have different definitions of fun.”

“Not so different. Tall, dark, and sexy sounds good to me too.”

She smiled weakly and glanced at her watch. It was almost 11:00. William had left a message saying that he would be late, but the party had been in progress for more than two hours. In addition, that afternoon Sally had questioned the wisdom of her decision to invite William. Not that you could really call it a decision. I could scarcely think, with him nibbling my ear.

Sally didn’t think William would mix well with the struggling actors and musicians who made up most of their circle of friends. But William was a musician too, so he had that in common with most of the other guests. Still, Sally’s comment reminded Elizabeth of William standing in a corner in imperious solitude at Jane’s wedding rehearsal dinner.

Elizabeth had other sources of anxiety. In a moment of weakness, she had allowed Sally to talk her into wearing the white shirred top Jane had given her in San Francisco along with a snug pair of black jeans. Jon had not been the first to tease her about her appearance. What next? A lap dance, when he gets here?

If he gets here.

His phone message that afternoon had been terse, simply explaining that he would be delayed without offering a reason or an apology. This seemed odd, after he had all but begged to see her tonight. Maybe he’s having second thoughts. Maybe he found something better to do than to hang out with a bunch of starving musicians. Maybe he found something better to do than to be with me.

But enough of that. This is a party. The private room in the back of the club, full almost to overflowing with her friends, crackled with energy and good spirits. The various musicians among the guests were taking turns at the microphone, providing nearly continuous entertainment. At the moment, a rock music jam session was in progress, and Jon was leading her expertly through an intricate series of steps on the dance floor. It would be foolish to let a dark-eyed, brooding pianist, even one as attractive as William, spoil her evening.

If he wants to see me, he’ll be here sooner or later. If not … well, at the risk of sounding like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that tomorrow.

 

When William saw the lighted sign proclaiming “Club MetroMania,” he felt like Columbus sighting land after months at sea. He had exited the cab in the center of SoHo, setting off on foot with great determination but no directions. Eventually he had resorted to asking help from pedestrians, but had ended up more lost than before. Finally, his aimless wandering had led him in the right direction.

His heart thudding in his chest, he stepped into the dimly-lit club. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he eyed the ostentatiously hip people clustered around the bar, representatives of a lifestyle completely foreign to him. Others filled the dance floor, swaying in time to a percussion beat booming out through massive speakers. The music made his teeth vibrate and gave him an instant headache. He saw no sign of Elizabeth or Sally, the only two party guests he would recognize.

Then he saw a door open in the back, and he realized that the party was probably in a private room. He pushed his way through the sea of black clothing, relieved to note that for once he blended in, and passed through the door.

He saw Elizabeth almost immediately. She was dancing with a muscular blond man with a deep tan and male-model good looks. From the looks of the tight embrace in which she was engulfed, they were intimately acquainted.

The music ended, and storm clouds gathered in his head as Elizabeth and her partner shared and embrace and a kiss. This must be why Sally was surprised that Elizabeth invited me. The happy pair lingered on the dance floor, talking and laughing. Her eyes flashed with the energy and spirit William loved. Although he couldn’t bear to see her with another man, neither could he wrench his eyes away from her.

The band resumed playing, and Elizabeth’s partner claimed her for another dance. William, his stomach churning, considered a variety of actions, including stalking onto the dance floor and, at great peril to his hands, flattening his rival with a punch on the jaw. Then her gaze landed on him, and her smile stole his breath. She spoke briefly to her partner, who turned to stare at William. Then she left the dance floor, heading in William’s direction.

“Hi,” she said softly when she reached his side. She smiled up at him, and his mouth went dry. He wanted to kiss her until she was clinging to him, moaning his name. His hands itched to span the narrow strip of bare stomach revealed between the hem of her white top and the waist of her jeans. Most of all, he simply wanted to bask in her presence.

Her smile faded, and she stood twirling a lock of hair around her finger. He realized that he was the cause of her uneasiness; he had been staring at her in silence for too long. He cleared his throat. “Hello,” he rasped. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

“I’m just glad you’re here now,” she replied as her smile reappeared.

He leaned forward to kiss her, but was interrupted by a loud “Ahem!” Her dance partner had joined them, flashing a jovial grin. “Hello! I’m Jon Prentiss. And you must be Mr. Tall—”

“William Darcy,” Elizabeth interrupted. William saw her stern glance at Jon and his answering smirk, and wondered what private message they were sharing.

With a curt nod, he shook Jon’s extended hand. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your dance,” he said coldly. But I’m glad I did.

“No problem,” Jon replied breezily, wrapping his arm around Elizabeth’s waist. “I’ll get another dance, or two or five, later. Lizzy is one of my favorite partners.”

“I’m sure she is,” William answered, his voice tight with resentment. Now, why don’t you get your hands off my girl.

“Well, I’ll leave you two to chat. See you later.” Jon kissed Elizabeth on the cheek and sauntered off in the direction of the bar.

William stepped close to Elizabeth and bent his head to kiss her. To his dismay, she drew away almost as soon as their lips met.

“I thought you’d be here earlier than this,” she said.

“I’m sorry. It’s been a long evening.” He wasn’t sure how to explain Mitzi, so he decided to simply omit all explanations.

“I was starting to think maybe you’d changed your mind.”

“Of course not. I said I was coming, didn’t I?” It hurt him that she doubted his word. He deserved better, especially considering the tribulations he had endured to be with her.

Her jaw tightened and a frown line formed between her eyebrows. He belatedly recognized that his retort had sounded harsh, but before he could apologize, she shrugged and flashed a tight, quick smile. “Well, it doesn’t matter. You’re here now. Come with me; I’ll introduce you around.”

 

An hour later, William sat at a small table in a shadowy corner, with only a half-empty glass of scotch for company. Elizabeth was dancing again, with yet another overly attentive partner, and William fought a powerful urge to storm the dance floor, sling her over his shoulder, and haul her out of the club. His rational self understood that she needed to circulate among the guests, but his more primitive instincts weren’t swayed by rational argument. She’s supposed to be my date. Yet here I sit while she gets warm and cozy with every other man in the room. He drummed his fingers on the table forcefully, his brow pulled down in a deep scowl.

Elizabeth’s partner spun her in a circle, and it seemed that William could hear her laughter above the raucous music. Powerful waves of jealousy gnawed at his stomach, and the unfamiliar sensation bewildered him. Women didn’t ignore him, not even when he wished they would. He did the ignoring.

He made his way to the bar to get another drink. Ordinarily he restricted himself to two glasses of wine at a party, but this was no ordinary occasion. He had surprised himself on an earlier trip to the bar by requesting a glass of their oldest Macallan on the rocks. “In fact,” he had said, “make it a double.”

Thirty-year Macallan was Richard’s drink of choice, but William didn’t seriously expect to find it available. And indeed, the bar stocked only the ten-year-old vintage. Richard refused to drink any scotch that wasn’t past the age of consent, but William had reluctantly settled on the inferior scotch as his drink of choice for the evening.

Everyone else seemed to be having a wonderful time chatting, laughing, and dancing together. But he was the outsider, unwelcome in their midst. The only people to approach him had been a slow but steady stream of women, attempting to lure him onto the dance floor. He rebuffed them all, wearing his practiced mask of indifference. He had no plans to make a fool of himself by dancing to rock music in a room crammed with professional dancers; were it not for that, he would have asked Elizabeth to dance.

His eyes devoured her as he gulped his scotch. The graceful sway of her hips as she moved ignited a painful wave of desire that increased to excruciating levels. He closed his eyes and imagined her lying beneath him, her soft body undulating through a long night of passion.

I need to get a grip on myself. He snorted, his lips twisting in an unpleasant smirk. Come to think of it, I already did that this morning in the shower. Didn’t help. He gritted his teeth, angry with himself for wanting her so much, and with her for making him feel this way.

The music stopped at last. He was heartened by the sight of Elizabeth moving in his direction, but her progress was impeded by a group of new arrivals who surrounded her, speaking all at once. She darted a quick glance in his direction before the group swallowed her up, propelling her toward the bar.

He emptied his glass in a single swallow, grimacing as it burned its way down his throat. I don’t need to tolerate any more of this. After everything he had gone through to be with her this evening, it was humiliating to be cast aside this way. It was time to stop embarrassing himself by yearning for a woman who didn’t want him.

Still, he couldn’t leave without saying a private farewell, one more chance to memorize the look in her eyes after he kissed her. At least her body responds to me, even if I can’t find a way into her heart.

 

Elizabeth looked toward William’s table and saw that it was empty. Her eyes scanned the room, but she failed to find the face she sought. Did he leave? Without even saying goodbye?

Obviously, he wasn’t enjoying the party. He had made no attempt to mingle, instead sitting in haughty, forbidding solitude whenever she had to leave him to visit with other guests. He had eventually lapsed into silence even in her presence, scarcely responding to her remarks. Surprised at his failure to ask her to dance, she had finally asked him, but he had refused in a brusque tone. The darker his mood had grown, the more she had begun to avoid his table, finding reasons to visit with others. She had obviously imagined his interest in her.

He had been sitting at his table just a minute or two earlier, so he couldn’t have gone far. Her pride rebelled at the idea of chasing him; if he truly intended to leave without a word, perhaps she should let him go. But she couldn’t let him slip out of her life this way. She needed to look into his dark eyes once more, even if the warmth she thought she saw there existed only in her imagination.

She threaded her way through the crowded room and out into the main area of the bar, but saw no sign of him. Perhaps he was outside.

As soon as she stepped onto the sidewalk, she saw him standing on the corner, his back to her, and relief flooded her. His broad shoulders were slumped, and she sensed an almost palpable aura of loneliness engulfing him. Oh, stop trying to psychoanalyze him. He’s probably just bored out of his mind, and annoyed to be stuck here with people so far beneath him.

When she spoke his name, his back stiffened and he turned slowly, almost reluctantly, to face her, his mouth set in a grim line. He crossed his arms over his chest and regarded her in frosty silence.

“I wondered where you were,” she said. “We haven’t really had a chance to talk yet.”

“That’s not my fault.”

The coldness in his voice shocked her, but she stifled her instinctive angry retort, determined to stay on cordial terms on their last evening together.

“I’m sorry,” she said evenly. “I didn’t mean to spend so much time away from you. But certainly you understand that I need to circulate among my guests.”

“Of course,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders, but the cold glint in his eyes didn’t match his words.

“Why are you out here all alone?”

“I needed some air.” His tone was cool and dismissive, but she saw the muscles in his jaw working.

“William, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

She summoned every ounce of patience she possessed and kept her voice calm. “You’re obviously angry about something. Why don’t you just tell me what it is.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you from your other guests.” His words were drenched in bitterness.

“Okay, so I’ve offended you by not spending enough time with you. I’m sorry about that. But this is my last chance to say goodbye to my friends. Besides, at a party, people are supposed to mingle, not stay parked at their tables all evening.”

“I’m aware of that, but I thought you asked me here as your date.”

“That didn’t mean I intended to spend every moment stapled to your side. Besides, even if that had been my plan, it would have been impossible, considering how late you got here.”

“You didn’t seem to be suffering from my absence.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, scowling.

Her temper flared. “What do you mean by that?”

He stared at her briefly, and then spoke. “When I got here, you were on the dance floor. Your partner was all over you, and I saw you kiss him.”

“And just what are you implying?”

“You tell me.” His eyes bored into hers. “You and Jon looked pretty cozy together.”

“Jon? You think Jon and I are—” Her anger melted away in the face of the absurdity of the situation. She stifled a giggle and arranged her features in a dispassionate expression. “Jon is just a good friend.”

“I have eyes, Elizabeth. I saw the two of you together.”

Setting William’s mind at ease would have been a simple matter, but she didn’t owe him any explanations, especially not when he was being so unreasonable. “Believe what you want,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “but I’m telling you that he’s a friend, and that’s all. Besides, what was I supposed to do when my date hadn’t arrived yet?”

“I got here as soon as I could.”

So you’ve said. But that doesn’t make it true.

He eyed her, obviously expecting a response. She stared back, challenging him with her silence. His hand combed roughly through his hair.

“I would have been here sooner, but things kept going wrong,” he said.

“Such as?”

“Gran needed me to go to a charity event that she couldn’t attend. And I was there longer than I planned because, well …” He frowned and bit his lip, his eyes avoiding her gaze.

She sensed that the delay somehow involved a woman, and he didn’t want to admit it. As much as she hated the thought, it wasn’t surprising that he had other women in his life. And at least they were having an actual conversation instead of trading verbal jabs.

He continued. “Then I had to go home and change, or else show up here in a tuxedo.”

“That would have been fine. You looked so handsome in your tux last night. Though I like what you’re wearing tonight, too. You’re the best-looking guy at the party.”

She hadn’t intended to make that admission, but she was glad to see the harsh lines on his face soften. “Thank you,” he murmured. “And you look beautiful.”

Elizabeth was annoyed to feel her pulse quicken. Stop being such a weakling! He’s acted like the hind end of a horse ever since he got here, but all he has to do is flash a smile and you’re ready to fling yourself into his arms. She took a deep breath and stepped back. “We should go back inside.”

“I thought you wanted to hear about my problems getting here.”

“You mean there’s more?”

“Allen was driving Gran, so I had to take a cab home to change, and then another cab here.” William’s tone was awash in self-pity.

“Two whole cabs?” She gasped in mock horror.

He raised an eyebrow. “Now you’re making fun of me,” he grumbled.

“A little,” she replied with a grin. “But I’m impressed that you made such a sacrifice to be here. And on the bright side, at least you didn’t have to take the subway.”

She could see him trying not to smile, but finally his dimples appeared. Their eyes met, and she felt a magnetic pull. But she wasn’t prepared to kiss him—at least, not the way she wanted to—on a crowded street corner. “Come on,” she said with a rueful smile. “Let’s get back to the party.”

She extended her hand, and after a moment of hesitation he engulfed it in his. Hands clasped, they walked back into the club and made their way through the crowd.

 

William was glad that he and Elizabeth had cleared the air. Now, if only his head would clear. He had consumed entirely too much scotch, along with two glasses of wine at the Daltons’.

When they reached the door to the back room, Elizabeth stopped and turned to him. “Why didn’t you want to dance with me earlier?” she asked.

“I was waiting for a slow song.”

“I wish you’d said something. I’m sure I could have persuaded them to play something slow; I am the guest of honor, after all. I thought you didn’t want to dance with me.”

The door to the back room opened. “There you are!” Sally exclaimed. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Lizzy. It’s your turn to perform.”

“Me? Oh, no, not tonight.”

“Come on, soon-to-be-ex-roommate. This is your swan song. The guys have been waiting for you.” Sally gestured toward the stage area, which was now occupied by small jazz band.

Elizabeth turned to William with an apologetic smile. “I used to sing with them in clubs, so it’s a reunion and a farewell performance rolled into one.”

For this inducement, William was willing to sit alone for a while longer. He claimed a seat directly in front of the band. To his surprise, Jon Prentiss plopped into an empty chair beside him.

“How you doin’?” Jon asked.

“Very well, thank you.” William knew he sounded priggish, but he couldn’t help it. Self-assured, swaggering men like Jon had always made him nervous.

“Lizzy’s quite a girl, isn’t she?”

“You seem to know her quite well.”

Jon either missed or ignored William’s challenging tone. “Yeah, I do. I’m going to miss her.”

“So am I.” A wave of dark misery washed over William.

Jon patted William’s forearm sympathetically, and then looked at him in surprise. “Say, what kind of workouts do you do? You’re in pretty good shape for a guy who plays the piano for a living.”

An odd question, but at least he had a good answer. “I run almost every day, plus some weight training.”

“Well, it works for you. Strong arms, broad shoulders, decent chest from what I can tell. Not sure about the rest—you’ve been sitting down too much—but I bet it’s in good shape too.”

William stared at Jon, at a loss for words.

“I can see why Lizzy’s so crazy about you,” Jon continued in a conspiratorial tone. “Can’t blame her. If I’d seen you first …” He shook his head and laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ve seen the way you look at her; I know I’m not your type.”

Aha. So there was no need to be jealous of Jon and Elizabeth’s relationship. But why didn’t she just explain?

A flourish from the drummer attracted the crowd’s attention. Elizabeth stepped to the microphone. “Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming tonight. It’s going to be hard to leave such good friends. I’ll miss you all very much, and you have an open invitation to visit me in San Francisco. I could go on, but I’d probably just start crying, so instead I’ll say a special thank you to Jon and Sally for arranging the party.”

There was scattered applause. Jon popped out of his chair and offered a parody of a regal wave.

“And I’ve gotten my arm twisted into singing,” Elizabeth continued. “So here goes.”

Hearty applause greeted this comment, and the crowd fell silent. After a brief pause, Elizabeth began to sing.

Let’s build a stairway to the stars,
A lovely stairway to the stars.
It would be heaven to climb to heaven with you.

She seemed at first to be avoiding looking at him, but soon their eyes locked, and he held her gaze as the song continued.

We’ll hear the sound of violins
Out yonder where the blues begin.
The moon will guide us as we go drifting along.

Can’t we sail away on a lazy daisy petal
High on the crest of a hill?
Can’t we sail away on a little dream
And settle high on the crest of a thrill?

We’ll build a stairway to the stars,
A lovely stairway to the stars.
It would be heaven to climb to heaven with you.1

The song ended long before William was ready to drift back to earth. Elizabeth accepted her friends’ applause and then left the stage area. The band began playing a reprise of “Stairway to the Stars,” this time as an instrumental arrangement. Elizabeth approached the table and extended her hand. With a dismissive nod to Jon, William rose to his feet and followed her to the dance floor.

“Did you request this song?” he murmured as he drew her into his arms.

“Of course. I told you they’d play my requests.”

They danced in silence until she giggled. “You know, I think this is the first time we’ve danced indoors, or when there were other people around.”

He chuckled. “You’re right. About time we did something conventional. But I think I preferred the atmosphere the other two times.”

“I forgot to thank you earlier for the orchid.”

“You’re welcome. If it’s too difficult to carry on the plane, I can have it professionally packed and shipped.”

“I’ll figure out a way to protect it. I’m not taking that much stuff with me.”

“I meant what I said in the note. I hope the orchid will remind you of me.”

Her only answer was to nestle closer, resting her head on his shoulder. They danced in silence as he imprinted every detail on his memory: the softness and warmth of her body against his, the enticing sweetness of her scent, the thick curtain of hair tumbling down her back. He knew that he would replay these memories many times in the lonely days to come.

The music ended. While others on the dance floor applauded, William bent his head and brushed his lips against Elizabeth’s forehead. She looked up at him, her eyes luminous, and for a time he forgot to breathe.

“I have to kiss you,” he whispered. He lowered his head, but she drew back.

“Not here. Not now.” Yet her eyes were fastened on his lips.

“Why not?” Frustration nearly boiling over, he barely managed to keep his voice low. “You kissed Jon out here on the dance floor.”

“Jon is just a friend, so when he kisses me it’s … different.”

William couldn’t resent hearing that his kisses meant something to her. “All right,” he said, adopting a tone of cheerful resignation. “But you owe me a kiss, and I’m compounding interest even as we speak. When we get back to your apartment, I intend to collect on the debt.”

His smile faded when he noted her uneasy expression. She began to speak, paused, and then began again. “William, I—”

“Lizzy, come here!” Three women sitting at a table near the dance floor gestured at Elizabeth. “We’ve been waiting all evening to hear more about your job.”

His heart sank. She was about to be torn away from him again. But as he turned toward his table, preparing to resume his seat, she caught his hand. “Come with me; we’ll pull up another chair. That is, if you don’t mind being the only man at a table with four women.”

“I think I can survive.”

Retaining her grasp on his hand, she drew him forward to introduce him to her friends.

 

From then on, the evening went well. To William’s great relief, Elizabeth kept him by her side and refused all offers to dance, except from him. He managed to relax, occasionally contributing to conversation but mostly just watching her.

It was late by the time the last of the guests departed. William, Elizabeth, Sally, and Jon lounged around a table, their posture revealing various degrees of exhaustion, all of them yawning at regular intervals. Allen was en route to the club in response to William’s phone call.

“Thanks to the two best friends in the world,” Elizabeth said. “It was a great party. But I’m so sorry Craig didn’t show up.”

“Who needs the big jerk?” Sally murmured without sitting up.

“Hang in there,” Elizabeth replied gently. “I’m sure in another day or two he’ll come to his senses and crawl back to you, groveling.”

William wished Craig would come to his senses sooner than that. Instead of spending the night with her boyfriend, Sally would be hanging around the apartment, ruining William’s plans for private time with Elizabeth. All he had left to look forward to now was the short ride back to her apartment.

The group fell silent. Finally, Jon pulled Sally to her feet. “Come on, kiddo, let’s get a cab.”

“Wait a second,” Elizabeth said to Sally. “Jon lives in the opposite direction. William’s taking me home; why don’t you just ride with us?”

William winced. Elizabeth had just deprived him of even a few minutes alone with her. But then Sally saved the day. “Didn’t I tell you?” she said. “Jon and I are going to have a slumber party.”

“You’re going to do what?” Elizabeth asked.

“We have an early audition tomorrow morning, and Jon lives close to the theater, so I’m going to crash on his sofa.”

Elizabeth frowned. “You’ve never mentioned this audition before.”

“We just found out about it yesterday,” Sally answered quickly.

William intercepted Jon’s smirk and understood the situation at once. I may have to revise my opinion of these two.

“What’s this audition for?” Elizabeth tilted her head to one side and eyed her friends.

“We’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,” Jon replied breezily. “Come on, Sal. Let’s make like a couple of babies and head out. If we don’t get at least a little sleep we’ll be tripping over the bags under our eyes at the audition.”

William and Elizabeth accompanied Jon and Sally out of the club, and found Allen there waiting for them. As he slid into the back seat of the car beside Elizabeth, four words echoed in William’s brain in a continuous loop.

Don’t screw this up.

 

Elizabeth’s stomach fluttered as the car pulled away from the club. She and William were alone, except for Allen, and once they reached her apartment they would be entirely on their own. She had been both anticipating and fearing this moment all evening. William shifted closer to her and took her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers.

“I know you didn’t have much fun tonight,” she said. “I should have realized that the party wouldn’t be your kind of thing.”

He shrugged. “It was fine. Besides, we’ve finally gotten to the part of the evening I’ve been looking forward to.”

She turned away from him and stared out the window, hoping to conceal her growing anxiety. He traced his thumb across her palm, stroking it with a delicate touch that sent ripples of pleasure up her arm. Just when she thought she couldn’t bear the delightful torture any longer, he released her hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer.

“I wish you’d change your mind and let me stop by tomorrow night,” he said, toying with a lock of hair that fell over her shoulder. “I’m sure Mrs. Reynolds would be happy to make tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches again.”

“Mmm. Do you suppose she could send some chocolate mousse for dessert too?”

He chuckled softly. “I’m sure that can be arranged. But there is one condition, and it’s a deal-breaker.”

“And that would be?”

“This time, I’ll be the one delivering the food, and it’ll be dinner for two.”

His fingers caressed her bare arm, raising goosebumps in their wake. She shivered.

“How does that sound?” he whispered in her ear.

“Very … nice,” she replied in an unsteady voice. It was hard to think with his lips tickling her ear, igniting little sparks of pleasure. “But … I don’t know. I really do have … a lot of packing to do.”

“No matter how busy you are, you need to eat. Besides, I could help you pack. And then, later, we could …” His voice faded away as his lips traced a path from her ear across her cheek.

“William, wait,” she whispered weakly. “Allen—”

“Is busy driving the car,” he murmured. She felt his warm breath against her cheek. “He won’t notice a thing. Besides, I’ve been waiting all evening to do this, and I can’t wait anymore.”

His mouth brushed hers softly, back and forth, tempting her to respond. When his hands twined in her hair and his kisses intensified, her capacity for resistance was exhausted. Desire shot through her, and at last she yielded to his gentle assault on her senses.

The car made its way toward the Lower East Side, but the inhabitants of the back seat were oblivious to everything but the heat they were generating. She sighed softly as his tongue teased her lips apart and slid into her mouth, stroking and exploring. His mouth tasted faintly of scotch, a detail that jolted Elizabeth back to full awareness.

Gently but firmly, she pushed on his chest. “We have to stop,” she whispered. “You may not care that Allen is in the car, but I do.”

He heaved a sigh and leaned back against the seat. “Do you know how many times you’ve pushed me away tonight?”

“I just think it’s better to keep private things in private. I would think that you’d agree. You seem to be a very private person.”

He sighed again, but he nodded slowly. “I’m usually careful about my behavior in public. But when I’m with you, decorum and dignity seem to go out the window.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him, and resumed his gentle stroking up and down her arm. She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, savoring the warmth of his body beside hers. How can this be so relaxing, and yet so …stimulating?

When they arrived at her building, William escorted her inside. The moment the elevator doors closed behind them, he grasped her shoulders and captured her mouth in a slow, deep kiss. She melted against him, one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, the other caressing his neck and jaw.

She barely noticed when the elevator doors opened. He nudged her gently toward the door, his lips still melded to hers, and propelled her down the hall with slow, awkward steps. Only when they reached her apartment door did he loosen his hold to allow her to retrieve her key. She fumbled in her purse while he stroked her hair, combing his fingers through her unruly curls.

No sooner was the apartment door closed behind them than William’s mouth came down on hers again, hot and hungry. He pressed her against the door, her face cupped in his hands. “Lizzy,” he whispered against her mouth. “You’re so beautiful, so sexy.”

Somewhere in a remote corner of her mind, warning bells rang, but they were overwhelmed by the insistent ache building in her body as the power of his voracious hunger sapped her will and melted her defenses. He pressed tightly against her, and a shudder—whether of desire or fear, or both, she wasn’t entirely certain—passed through her. It was enough to clear her mind at last. She pulled her lips away from his and removed his hands from her face, pushing him gently but insistently away from her.

William stood looking at her, his chest heaving, bewilderment etched on his features. He had left his jacket in the car, allowing her a full view of his black sweater. She imagined herself drawing it up, inch by inch, her hands following along and exploring, and she took an involuntary step toward him.

Stop being such a weakling. You’ve known other attractive men. There is no reason to come unglued.

“It’s late,” she began tentatively.

“Please, don’t ask me to leave, Lizzy. Not yet.”

“Well … all right. How about some coffee before you go?”

William nodded. “Good idea.”

Alone in the kitchen, Elizabeth grasped the counter and tried to clear her mind. Never before had she understood when friends had talked about being completely swept away by passion, but now it was all too clear how that might happen, especially with a man as desirable as William. He must have women lined up outside his bedroom door every night, competing to do the honors.

Well, there’s a sobering image.

 

William stood in the living room, inspecting Elizabeth’s CD collection. He was amused but flattered to discover that she owned what appeared to be a complete collection of his recordings. He was about to skip past them to see what else she had when he remembered her powerful response to his piano solo the night before. It seemed ungentlemanly to exploit her susceptibility to his music, but these were desperate times. He scanned her CD’s, found what he was looking for, and loaded it into the player, nodding in approval as soft jazz piano music began to play. Definitely the right mood.

Next, he glanced around the living room, grimacing at the drab walls, the threadbare sofa, and the scratched coffee table. He turned off the harsh overhead light and switched on a small lamp in a corner, plunging the room into deep shadows. It was not the sort of place in which he’d imagined making love to her for the first time, but it would have to do. Perhaps the atmosphere in her bedroom would be more pleasant.

That task complete, he ambled into the tiny kitchen. He smiled in satisfaction at the sight of a dozen yellow roses, their bl in a vase on the table. Elizabeth stood with her back to him, watching the coffeemaker dispense its dark, fragrant brew. He wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her back against him. She stiffened at his touch, but when he gathered her hair to one side and nuzzled her neck, she sighed softly and relaxed back against him.

“Did I tell you how lovely you look tonight?” he murmured in her ear. “You take my breath away.” He breathed deeply, inhaling her fragrance, and tightened his arms around her. Holding her this way felt impossibly good, and a low groan escaped his throat.

She wiggled out of his arms. “Coffee’s ready,” she said.

Okay, slow down. She wants me, but she wants us to take our time. He needed to be careful. His self-control had been compromised by a volatile combination of desire, the urgency of her imminent departure, and too much scotch.

They took their coffee into the living room. “Nice choice of music,” Elizabeth said with a smile. She picked up the CD case, which showed William seated at the piano in a contemplative mood. The title read, ’Round Midnight: Jazz Encores by William Darcy.

She put the CD back on the table and sat on the sofa. “This is going to be a little strange, sitting with you while listening to your CD. It’s like having two William Darcys to entertain me at once.”

William seated himself beside her, one arm stretched across the sofa back. “Are you saying that one William Darcy isn’t enough?” he asked with a grin.

Elizabeth giggled. “Not at all. In fact, I think I’ve got more than I can handle with just one of you.”

He draped his arm around her, drawing her close. They sat together quietly for a few minutes, sipping their coffee and listening to the music.

Finally, he broke the warm silence. “About tomorrow night. I was serious about my suggestion. I’m not ready to say goodbye.”

She grimaced. “I don’t know. It would be nice to see you again, but I think I’ll get my packing done faster if I don’t have any distractions.”

“Is that all I am to you? A distraction?” His fingers traced a path up and down her arm, and he felt her shudder. “Let’s find out how distracting I can be.”

He set down his coffee mug. “Lizzy,” he whispered, cupping her cheek in his palm and leaning toward her. When their lips met, a jolt of sensual heat obliterated everything but his desire for her. His earlier taste of her lips, rather than slaking his hunger, had made him ravenous, and he poured every ounce of frustrated desire into his kisses.

He wondered, in the small portion of his brain that continued to function, why this woman drove him to such agonies of desire, why her kisses inflamed him and robbed him of rational thought, why her presence was as necessary to him as breathing. He didn’t know the answer; he only knew that he had to have her.

Mindless rapture washed over him when she buried her fingers in the hair at his nape and tentatively darted her tongue between his lips. With a fierce groan, William crushed her to him, his hands sliding up and down her back and tangling in her hair. He gasped her name against her lips as they both dragged air into their oxygen-starved lungs.

He leaned over her, pushing her backward until her head rested on the sofa arm. His eyes burned into hers, and he thought he saw a flash of doubt. But when his mouth descended to capture hers again, she moaned and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him ardently.

Hungry to touch and taste every inch of her, his lips left hers and traveled to her jaw and down her neck. He ran his hand down her arm and stroked his way up the side of her torso, brushing his fingers lightly against her breast.

Then he raised his head and gazed at her flushed face. She reached up to smooth his hair off his forehead. The affection in her eyes sent a calming wave of tenderness through him. “Cara,” he whispered, running his finger over her parted lips in a feather-light touch. He dipped his head to hers, kissing her softly, teasing her lips with his.

Soon, though, urgent heat began to build again. He knew from her kisses, and from the way her hands began to explore his back, that she felt it too. Unable to resist temptation any longer, his hand slid down her neck to her breast. He spread his fingers to engulf it, feeling its warmth through her thin blouse.

Elizabeth pulled her lips away from his, her hands at his back ceasing their caresses. “William—” she began. But when his fingers teased her taut nipple, she sighed softly and her hands resumed their stroking. He leaned over to kiss her again, groaning as he sucked her tongue into his mouth, encouraging her to explore him, his need to possess her overwhelming him.

He began to unconsciously circle his hips, groaning her name in frustrated longing. His hand slipped under the hem of her blouse to explore further until at last his fingers slid over her bare breast. It felt like heaven to touch her this way, and he alternated between toying with her nipple and massaging the firm flesh, feeling its weight in his palm. He began to draw her blouse upward.

It took a moment for William’s passion-fogged brain to recognize that Elizabeth had grabbed his arm and was telling him, in a strident voice drenched in panic, to stop. Although he was befuddled by her frightened reaction, he promptly slipped his hand out from under her blouse, resting it on her hip.

“Lizzy, what’s wrong?” He sat up, perched precariously on the edge of the sofa.

She struggled into an upright position and pulled her blouse down. “What do you mean, ‘what’s wrong’? You were trying to undress me.”

“But I thought you—”

“Well, you thought wrong. I’m not interested in casual sex.”

“Neither am I.”

“Then why are you trying to seduce me when we’ve only just started dating?”

Just started dating? She had been the center of his thoughts for … it seemed like forever. “Lizzy, you’re leaving, and I’m going to miss you, and I—”

“So this is some kind of parting gift you think you deserve?”

“Of course not. Lizzy, I love you.”

She stared at him, her eyes huge. “You love me?”

The impulsive declaration had slipped out, and it was too late to deny it now. He let out a huge sigh. “Yes. I love you.”

She stared at him, her chest rising and falling rapidly, and then she reached out. For a triumphant moment, William thought she was going to embrace him. Instead, she shoved him, catching him off guard and off balance, and he fell off the sofa and onto the floor. His shoulder bumped the table, knocking over her mug of coffee. Its contents sloshed onto his sweater and slacks.

“How dare you say that you love me just to get me into bed?” She jumped to her feet, glaring down at him.

“I didn’t. It’s the truth. I love you.” He hauled himself awkwardly to his feet, gaping at the anger flashing in her eyes.

“Stop it. Just stop it.” She choked out the words. “You couldn’t possibly love me. You told me just a few weeks ago that you don’t believe in love at first sight. You must think I’m so completely under the spell of The Great William Darcy that all it takes is a few sugar-coated lies, and I’ll let you take anything you want from me. Well, sorry to disappoint you. That may work with most women, but I’m made of stronger stuff.”

Actually, he’d never needed to lie to attract a woman, but that was beside the point. “I’m not lying, Lizzy. Why can’t you believe that I care about you?”

She folded her arms across her chest. “For openers, you’ve never even said anything about staying in touch after I move.”

“I wasn’t sure how you felt about it. And I was going to call you, regardless. At the least, if you didn’t want anything more, I was planning to see you whenever I was on the West coast.”

“How convenient. A girl—and a bed—in every port, so you never have to sleep alone. I take it you have an opening for a California girl? Or maybe just northern California; you probably have someone in LA already.”

He struggled to swallow his annoyance. “I don’t have ‘a girl in every port.’ In fact, I don’t have a girl in any port. But I want you in my life. I’m going to miss you, and I don’t want to say goodbye.”

“Right. You’re going to miss me so much that you didn’t even bother to show up for my farewell party until hours after it started.”

“I explained that. The charity event—”

“Oh, come on.” Her eyes were cold, her voice cynical. “Your only interest was in taking me home and getting me into bed. So you found some other woman—someone at your social level, I’m sure—to spend the evening with, and then you waltzed into my party just in time to bring me back here. Did you bribe Sally to dream up that story about the audition, so she’d be out of the way?”

Rage simmered inside him until his stomach began to churn. Her unfounded accusations were an insult to his pride and his character. All I’ve done is to love her with all my heart, sacrificing my wishes for her happiness, and this is how she treats me.

He stalked across the room, counting to ten in Italian under his breath, and smacked the “Stop” button on the CD player. Then he turned back to her, struggling to keep his voice calm. “You think I have so little integrity, and so little regard for you?”

“What else should I think? You made it clear how you felt about the party. From the moment you arrived, you couldn’t wait to leave. You acted as though you expected to catch a fatal disease. Sitting all alone, looking down your nose at everyone—”

“I didn’t attend that party to meet your friends. I wanted to be with you. And instead I sat alone while you deserted me at every opportunity.”

“And why not, the way you were behaving,” she snapped. “But that’s beside the point. I have no intention of being the next in your long string of conquests. So you’d better open your little black book and find somebody else to scratch your itch.”

“Why do you keep insisting that I’m some kind of Casanova?” His foot bumped against the fallen coffee cup, and he kicked it aside. “I haven’t been with a woman since … I can’t remember, it’s been so long ago. I didn’t even have any condoms; I had to buy some yesterday.”

When he saw her eyes blaze, he realized his mistake, but it was too late.

“How charming.” She spat out the words. “You assumed that I’d be so impressed by your big fancy house that I’d just fall into your bed last night? I didn’t know that was what Mrs. Reynolds meant when she said you’d done lots of planning for our date. So, how many condoms did you bring with you tonight? I assume your wallet is bulging with them.”

He stared at her in silence. It was a no-win situation. Suppose they’d decided to make love and he hadn’t been prepared. Then she would probably have cursed him for being irresponsible.

“I am such an idiot,” she said as she strode across the room to flip on the overhead light. “I keep falling for the same routine, thinking that a man is something special, and that he thinks I’m special too. And then I find out he’s only interested in one thing.”

William was out of patience. “Enough!” he bellowed. “I’ve heard enough of these insulting accusations.”

Elizabeth folded her arms across her chest and regarded him with a disbelieving expression that fed his anger. She didn’t speak; apparently his outburst had silenced her, at least for the moment.

“I’m sorry if it offends you that I find you desirable,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I suppose it would be far more gallant if I wanted nothing more than a chaste kiss, but obviously that’s not the case. For reasons that escape me at the moment, I have feelings for you that go far beyond the physical. But, yes, I want you, more than I’ve ever wanted a woman in my life.”

Her arms remained crossed over her chest, but he thought he noted a slight softening around her eyes. She remained silent, seemingly ready to listen to him at last.

“In addition to that,” he continued, “I don’t think a chaste kiss would have satisfied you either.”

“Oh?”

“I was getting plenty of encouragement from you, right up to the moment when you pushed me away.”

“So you’re saying I’m a tease? That I purposely led you on and then slammed on the brakes?”

He sensed danger in her arched eyebrows, but he didn’t care. It was finally his turn to vent his frustrations. “I’m not saying that. But it seemed like you wanted me as much as I wanted you. You were kissing me, and letting me touch you, and your hands were all over my back under my shirt. It was obvious where this was headed. You shouldn’t have—”

“Stop. Right. There.” He had thought her voice angry up to that point, but she had just given him a new benchmark. “I shouldn’t have stopped you if I became uncomfortable? Things had gone too far, so I didn’t have any right to say no? It was my fault you were all worked up, so I had no choice but to lie back and let you have your way?” Tears filled her eyes and her voice was thick when she continued. “You unimaginable bastard.”

“No, that’s not what I—”

“Get out of here, now.” She stormed toward the door.

William shook his head, trying to clear it. What had gone wrong? “Lizzy, you completely misunderstood me. Let me explain.”

“You had your chance to explain. Now get out. I don’t want you here. And don’t call me Lizzy. My friends call me that.”

She flung the door open and stared at him, fury burning in her eyes. He considered refusing to leave until they resolved their differences. But he was tired of her unjust accusations and her irrational anger, and she obviously wasn’t going to listen to reason tonight. “All right, I’ll go,” he said. “But I want to say something first.”

“Make it quick.”

“I don’t know why you’re so determined to misunderstand me and to put the worst possible spin on everything I say. But neither of us is in the best frame of mind right now. We’re tired, we’re emotional, and we’ve been drinking. Tomorrow we’ll be calmer and more clear-headed. I’ll come back tomorrow evening, and —”

“You think I’m ever letting you back into this apartment? Not a chance.” She planted her hands on her hips, her eyes two dangerous shards of green glass. “You’ve had your say. Now go. I don’t ever want to see you again.”

It occurred to him that the best proof of his feelings was that he loved her even now, when she was utterly irrational. Never seeing her again was unthinkable. He sighed and closed his eyes, his anger and frustration collapsing under a heavy weight of misery.

“All right. I’m going. But whether you believe it or not, I meant what I said. I love you, and I hope you’ll change your mind once you calm down. When that happens, call me.” He tried to stifle one last word for the sake of his pride, but he couldn’t. “Please.”

“Good bye, William.”

His heart clenched at her icy tone of dismissal. “Good night, Lizzy.”

Her eyes narrowed at his intentional use of her nickname. He held her gaze, searching for even the smallest sign of hesitation or regret, but she stood still, cold and unmoving. He walked into the dingy hallway with heavy steps. The door thudded behind him, echoing with painful finality, and he was alone again.

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1 “Stairway to the Stars,” words by Mitchell Parish; music by Matt Malneck and Frank Signorelli. Performed by Christiane Noll on Live at the West Bank Café, © 2003, Car Jam Records (CD available on Amazon.com. Not available on iTunes; however, you can listen to Sarah Vaughan’s live performance on Youtube or listen to a sample of her recording on iTunes.