Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her trembling body as William’s footsteps faded away. Her breath caught in her chest and she clenched her fists, stamping her foot as she let out a throaty cry.

Unshed tears stung her eyes. She had almost cried before he left but had forbidden it. And I’m still not going to cry. But damn him! Why did I have to think he was different? When will I learn that opening my heart to a man is a huge mistake?

“I love you,” he said. Liar! What would a man like William Darcy want with a penniless nobody like me? Well, now I know. A little flirtation followed by a farewell roll in the sack, and then back to his glamorous life, that’s what. And once he’d had his fun, he would have turned on me, just like Michael did—

No. I’m not going to cry.

She paced aimlessly through the apartment. In the kitchen, her gaze fixed on the vase of yellow roses. She yanked the blooms from their vase, yelping when a thorn pierced her thumb. Just like William. Attractive on the surface, but when you go deeper … She crushed the flowers in her hands and shoved them into the trash can.

Adrenalin pumping through her veins, Elizabeth stalked through the apartment looking for other objects on which to vent her frustration. The case from William’s CD hit the wall with a crash. The delicate rosebud from Tuesday evening, which had been on the verge of opening, soon lay on the floor, its torn petals scattered around the stem. The creamy white roses that had graced the dining room table joined the yellow ones in the trash, and the vase adorning her dresser soon stood empty, its former occupants dumped unceremoniously into the bedroom trash can, a mass of broken stems and fragrant pink petals.

dendrobium orchid Then her gaze fixed on the orchid sitting on her night table, and her frenetic activity ceased. She cradled the pot in her trembling hands and studied the beautiful blooms, her breaths quick and shallow. After returning the orchid to the table, she retrieved the thick sheet of paper beside it. As she inspected William’s precise handwriting, drops of water splashed onto the page, and she realized that they were her own tears. She flung herself onto the bed and buried her face in her pillow, sobbing.

 

William and Allen had a long-standing arrangement designed to subtly communicate William’s plans for the night without embarrassing his date. If William wanted Allen to wait, he simply told him so. But on those occasions when he anticipated spending the night at his date’s apartment, William exited the car without giving Allen any instructions. This was Allen’s cue to wait 30 minutes in case of a change of plans, after which he was free to depart. This method had worked well in the past, sparing the two men the embarrassment of discussing William’s sex life, even indirectly.

For the first time, the arrangement had backfired, leaving William stranded on the street in front of Elizabeth’s building. He reached into his pocket for his cell phone, swearing under his breath when he remembered that it was at home. No taxis were in sight, not that he had expected to see one on this quiet residential street in the middle of the night.

He sighed and massaged his forehead, trying to banish the beginnings of a headache. He remembered Elizabeth’s quip about the subway, and shuddered at the notion of waiting on the platform with the motley collection of New Yorkers who would be slinking around this part of town so late at night. Then again, walking was no more attractive an option. It was close to five miles, and at this hour of the night he’d probably get mugged.

Despite his heartfelt wish to avoid facing Elizabeth’s wrath again, he considered ringing her doorbell and asking her to call him a cab. But a sobering realization descended on him. If I go back, she’ll know that Allen didn’t wait, which will offer still more evidence that I expected to spend the night. After that, she’d probably be angry enough to mug me herself.

It was a mystery how something so right had gone wrong so quickly. One moment she had been warm and yielding in his arms, and the next he’d found himself sprawled in an undignified heap on the floor, covered in coffee and subjected to a barrage of insulting accusations. Elizabeth’s angry voice echoed in his aching head:

“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.”

His shoulders slumped and he stared unseeing at the sidewalk. Not only had he never lied about being in love, he had never said the words to a woman until tonight.

But that wasn’t his immediate problem. He decided to walk to a busier street in search of a cab. He was unfamiliar with this part of the city and had never paid attention to the route Allen took to get here, which left him little choice but to walk in a random direction and hope for the best. My second walking tour of the city this evening.

A car horn in the distance proposed a better strategy: his ears might lead him where he needed to go. He listened intently, chose a likely direction and began to walk. As he trudged along, he tormented himself by replaying their argument.

“A girl—and a bed—in every port, so you never have to sleep alone.”

To his chagrin, many people believed that stereotype, as if he were a bad-boy rock musician. But classical musicians were nothing like rock stars, and in any case he had chosen to conduct himself with taste and discretion. And as a reward I’m treated with contempt.

He heard her voice again, inflicting fresh torture:

“You’d better open your little black book and find somebody else to scratch your itch.”

As though he simply wanted to fill his bed, and didn’t care with whom. If that were true, he wouldn’t have needed to look farther than Mitzi Dalton. William felt bile rising in his throat; he welcomed it as an alternative to the despair threatening to overwhelm him. Who is she to treat me with so much derision, to make all these groundless accusations?

And how on earth could she deny that she was a willing partner in what we were doing? If she wasn’t, why did she keep moaning and touching me and kissing me? But then all of a sudden she acted as though I had pinned her down on the sofa and forced myself on her.

About a block ahead, William could see what appeared to be a well-lit intersection. He increased his pace and soon reached the corner. His head throbbed, whether from emotion or from the scotch, and his stomach was queasy. He felt unsteady on his feet, and he heaved an angry sigh. Just what I need. A dizzy spell when I’m out here alone.

Then he saw it: an unoccupied cab half a block away. He sprang into action, his physical ailments momentarily forgotten, and sprinted in the direction of the cab. In the first scrap of good luck the universe had granted William all evening, the cab driver spotted him and pulled up to the curb.

William gave the driver his address and sat back, exhaling slowly. Thank God. Now all I have to worry about is my doctor’s appointment later today, and the fact that the woman I love loathes me to the depths of her soul.

 

“Jane? Are you there? It’s Lizzy. If you’re there, please pick up. I really, really need to talk to you.”

Elizabeth stood in the kitchen, the phone clamped to her ear. In a way, she felt foolish. She was an adult, and shouldn’t need to cry on her big sister’s shoulder. But she and Jane had always been there for each other, sharing their joys and their sorrows.

It was peculiar that Jane hadn’t answered the phone yet; it was past midnight in San Francisco, and Jane wasn’t in the habit of staying out late on weeknights. Maybe she’s asleep and she didn’t hear the phone …. Oh, wait. how could I have forgotten? Jane had called that morning to hear about the dinner date. She had said that she would be in Sacramento overnight on business related to a court case.

Jane had a cell phone, but there was little chance that it would be turned on at this hour. Elizabeth tried the number anyway, but as expected, Jane didn’t answer.

A tear slid down Elizabeth’s cheek as she hung up the phone. She briefly considered calling Charlotte, but now was not the time. Charlotte would offer pithy, helpful advice, and eventually Elizabeth would welcome it, but tonight she wanted comfort, not straight talk.

Elizabeth wandered into the bedroom and curled up on the bed, still fully dressed. She stared at the orchid on the night table as her thoughts drifted into the past.

 

Clad in boxer shorts and a black silk robe, William wandered into his sitting room. On his arrival home, he had quietly prepared for bed, hoping that sleep would give him some respite from his physical and emotional travails. But he had found it unbearable to lie alone in his oversized bed, almost as if the piece of furniture were taunting him. He scanned the room, hoping to find some distraction from the emptiness inside of him.

At least he appeared to have slipped into the house undetected. The last thing he wanted was to have to make excuses for his unorthodox arrival in a cab at three in the morning.

The anger he had earlier summoned against Elizabeth had already flickered out, leaving desolation in its wake, and a gnawing sense of guilt. Initially, when analyzing her behavior, he had chosen to dwell on the encouragement she had given him. But since arriving home, he had begun to recall other signals, ones he had disregarded because they didn’t suit his purposes.

Although she had at first eagerly responded to his kisses, he now remembered the moment when she had pushed him away, and had seemed ready to ask him to leave. In the kitchen, she had escaped his embrace when he had pulled her body into close contact with his. And during their pleasurable activity on the sofa, he had seen her hesitate more than once, seeming to be on the verge of telling him to stop.

And every time I sensed her hesitation, did I back off? Did I ask her what was wrong? No. I turned up the heat, using her body’s responses against her to make it difficult to refuse. No wonder she thought that was the only thing I wanted from her.

Elizabeth’s voice, steeped in sarcasm, rang in his ears:

“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.”

William had to admit that, had their situations been reversed, he would have been hurt by such a late arrival. But I couldn’t help it. Gran made me go to the Dalton party. He shook his head; that sounded like the refrain of a whiny child. Why didn’t I tell Gran no, and then stick to my guns? The Dalton event wasn’t that important.

He prowled through the sitting room like a caged panther. By force of habit, he seated himself at the piano, but he was too anxious to sit in one place. And the music that usually played in his head was drowned out by her angry voice.

“You couldn’t possibly love me. You told me just a few weeks ago that you don’t believe in love at first sight.”

William winced. He had indeed made that arrogant pronouncement during their walk to City Hall Park almost a month ago. I was already falling in love with her by then; I was just trying to convince myself that it wasn’t happening. And instead, I convinced her.

He wandered over to his audio system and absently scanned his massive CD collection. The first CD he noticed was his Jazz Encores recording, the same one he had selected to play at Elizabeth’s apartment. With a sigh that sounded suspiciously like a whimper to his ears, William snatched the CD from its slot and shoved it into the back of a storage cabinet at the bottom of his bookcase.

His action disturbed a group of old vinyl records in the cabinet, causing them to tip over at an angle. He reached in to set them upright, and on a whim removed one from the cabinet. It was his mother’s favorite Frank Sinatra album. She had been a devoted fan, and William’s childhood memories included the sound of Sinatra’s voice issuing from this room, which had been hers until her death.

The album in his hand was a somber collection of ballads. Even the album cover suggested late-night loneliness, displaying a stylized sketch of a pensive Sinatra on an empty street, a thin ribbon of smoke trailing from the cigarette in his hand.

William uncovered his turntable and placed the record on it. He carefully lowered the needle and settled into his leather chair, propping his bare feet on an ottoman. He switched off the light beside his chair, plunging the room into darkness.

Sinatra’s smooth voice caressed the title song, the words painfully appropriate:

In the wee small hours of the morning,
While the whole wide world is fast asleep,
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never, ever think of counting sheep.

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson,
You’d be hers if only she would call,
In the wee small hours of the morning,
That’s the time you miss her most of all.1

He sat back in his chair, staring into the darkness, and settled in for a long, lonely night.

 

William scarcely recognized the man looking back at him in the bathroom mirror the next morning. Deep shadows smudged the area beneath his eyes, making him look even paler than he was. He looked worse than he felt, and that was saying something.

He slipped off his robe and eyed the faint scar on his chest. As if he didn’t already have enough problems, he had to see Dr. Rosemont later today. She would deliver the bad news he had been dreading for weeks. Had things been different, it would have been comforting to spend the evening with Elizabeth, to lose himself in her warmth and forget, at least for a short time.

But she was gone from his life. In the darkest moments of the night, her cold dismissal had echoed repeatedly in his mind, inflicting another wound on his heart each time. His only hope, and it was a feeble one, was that she’d reconsider and call him. But as the night had worn on and he had rerun the evening’s events in a never-ending loop, that hope had been extinguished.

William dragged himself into his dressing room to change into his running clothes. He was supposed to meet Richard in the park in half an hour, and to cancel was a weakling’s way out.

 

Elizabeth wasn’t naturally a morning person, but she was accustomed to getting up early. She had often taught early-morning classes, and on her days off from teaching there had always been plenty of work waiting to be done. This morning, though, she couldn’t seem to drag herself out of bed. Her head ached and her vision was blurred, probably because her eyes were swollen.

She had finally fallen asleep some time after five o’clock, only to be awakened two hours later when an ambulance streaked past her building. Since then she had been lying in bed staring at the orchid and trying to bribe herself to get up.

Wouldn’t you like to go to the kitchen and make a nice strong pot of coffee, Lizzy? Wouldn’t coffee taste delicious right now? This prospect finally galvanized her into action, and she sat up and rubbed her throbbing temples.

She shuffled into the kitchen. The coffee pot was half-full of an unappetizing sludge that smelled like burned toast, and her stomach executed a queasy flip-flop. She had forgotten to turn off the warmer last night after William left.

While fresh coffee was brewing she went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. She looked like Medusa, pale with red, puffy eyes and a wild tangle of frizz where her hair was supposed to be.

She poured her coffee and went back to bed, huddling under the covers. If he’d gotten his way, he’d be here right now, lying next to me. In spite of herself, she felt a little frisson of desire at the thought, but she quickly stifled it. More likely he’d be long gone by now. He wouldn’t have spent the night. Once he’d gotten what he wanted, why would he hang around the low-rent district?

The thought roused her anger again, but it died quickly. She had been right to refuse him, but she regretted losing control. I was screaming like a shrew. Too much wine, too much adrenalin … and too much of me overreacting.

She heard the phone in the kitchen ring. What if it’s William? Elizabeth considered letting voicemail get it, but discarded that option as cowardly. She stumbled out of bed and ran to the kitchen.

“Hello?” Her voice trembled.

“Liz, it’s Char.”

Elizabeth felt a peculiar mixture of relief and regret. “Char! You’re up early.”

“Yeah. I have to go down to Palo Alto this morning, and I wanted to be sure to catch you at home.”

Elizabeth carried the phone back to the bed and slipped under the covers. “What’s up?”

“Jane called last night. She’s going to have to stay an extra day in Sacramento, so I said I’d pick you up at the airport tomorrow. She should be back around dinnertime, and you and I can hang out till then.”

Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been counting on seeing Jane. It was a delay of only a few hours, but it felt like a calamity. “That’s fine,” she said, her voice shaking as she fought back tears.

“Liz, are you okay? You sound terrible.”

Elizabeth was humiliated to find herself crying. She tried to stifle the sounds, but Charlotte had obviously heard her.

“Liz, what’s the matter?”

In a halting voice, Elizabeth told Charlotte the story of the party and the aftermath. When she finished, Charlotte was quiet for a moment, and then asked a question.

“Okay, first, did he force you to do anything, or even try to? Because if he did—”

Elizabeth exhaled slowly, feeling strangely calm now that she had told her story. “No,” she said quietly. “No, he stopped as soon as I told him to. But he wanted a lot more.”

“Can you honestly say that you didn’t want more too?”

“You’re missing the point. This proves that he’s like every other guy. All he wants is to get me into bed, and he was willing to lie to accomplish it.”

“I wish I were there right now so I could smack you upside the head. You wanted him too, didn’t you?”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I told you, that’s beside the point.”

“No, it’s not. Answer my question.”

“All right. When I’m with him I … I’ve never felt anything like this before. When he kisses me or … touches me, it’s almost impossible to resist him. I kept trying to make myself stop him, but I couldn’t do it until he tried to take off my top.” Elizabeth licked her lips, remembering his exquisite kisses and the sultry heat in his eyes.

“Okay, so in other words, he gets you all hot and bothered. And you told me before that you’ve learned to like him. This is a good thing, Liz, and you’re treating it like a tragedy.”

“But it’s too soon for … well, for …”

“Too soon for you, but apparently not for him.”

Elizabeth was becoming annoyed. “Right. Because his main objective was to score with me before I left town.”

Charlotte sighed noisily. “You are maddening sometimes! What does this poor guy have to do to convince that you he’s crazy about you?”

“I don’t know, but throwing me down on the couch isn’t on that list.”

“It doesn’t sound like that’s what happened. But that’s not the point I wanted to make.”

Elizabeth could hear a lecture coming on. “Okay, go ahead,” she grumbled.

“Set last night aside for a minute and think about some of the other things he’s done. He swallowed his pride and apologized to you. He’s been sending you flowers every day. He called you on the phone every night while he was out of town last week. He took you to his house and introduced you to his family. Do you think he does that with every woman he meets?”

“No, but—”

“And don’t say that he only did those things to get you into bed.”

“Why not? It’s probably true.”

“You’ve been saying all along that he can have almost any woman he wants, and I think that’s probably close to the truth. So why would he be investing all this effort in you, if all he wanted was sex? Doesn’t it seem like a waste of time, if he can just walk into any bar in New York and score all the female companionship his heart, or any other part of him, desires?”

Elizabeth sipped her coffee in silence. She hated to admit it, but Charlotte was making sense.

“Can’t you see that he’s doing these things because you matter to him? You. All of you, not just your body. And I’m not saying he doesn’t like your body. Obviously he does, and what’s wrong with that? I mean, would you prefer that he be repulsed by the sight of you?”

“Of course not.”

“And, besides, you like his body, don’t you? I mean, certainly you’ve noticed that he is, to put it mildly, very nicely constructed.”

Elizabeth sighed loudly. She hated it when Charlotte was right. “Yes.”

“So, yeah, he wants to have sex with you. Why is that such a crime?”

“It’s too soon.”

“So you said, and that’s perfectly fair. But he feels differently, and you can’t expect him to read your mind. Why didn’t you just tell him how you felt, instead of pitching a fit and kicking him out?”

Elizabeth bristled at this implied criticism, though she had been asking herself the same question for the past hour. “I’m so tired of you and Jane taking his side all the time! You weren’t here last night. You don’t know what really happened!” Tears spilled down her cheeks as she clutched the phone, trying to regain control of her emotions.

“Liz, we’re on your side, and you know that,” Charlotte said in a quiet voice full of authority. “But I think William really cares about you, and it seems like you have feelings for him too. Why not enjoy it instead of fighting it?”

“It’s not the first time a guy has gone to a lot of trouble, when all he really wanted was to get me into bed. Michael did that. He was so charming; he made it seem like I was the most important thing in his world. I believed him that night when he said he loved me.”

“I know. He turned out to be a real bastard. But you shouldn’t automatically assume that William is like that.”

“I think what made it worse last night was that …” Elizabeth paused and took a deep breath, hoping to stop the trembling in her voice. “You never met Michael, but he looks a little bit like William.”

“Really? There are two men in the world who look like that, and you’ve met them both? Life is so unfair.”

Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile. “They don’t look exactly alike, but they’re both tall with dark wavy hair and brown eyes, and their features are similar. It’s probably one of the things that attracted me to Michael in the first place: he looked like my idol.”

“That makes sense.”

“So last night when William said ‘I love you,’ just like Michael did, something just snapped.”

“You poor thing. Poor William, too. I bet he didn’t know what hit him.”

“I know, but he shouldn’t have lied about loving me.”

Charlotte groaned in disgust. “Why do you refuse to accept that he could have been telling you the truth? Haven’t you been listening to me?”

“I’m willing to admit that he likes me. You’re right; he probably wouldn’t have gone to all that effort otherwise. But love? No way. We haven’t known each other that long, and besides, think about who he is, and who I am.”

“Oh, are we doing the whole ‘I’m not worthy’ thing again?”

“Come on, Char. I’m not putting myself down; I’m just being realistic. He’s charming, intelligent, immensely talented, handsome, rich, and famous. He could date movie stars, models, whatever he chooses. And he’s going to settle for an ordinary music teacher?”

“You said he’s intelligent. Maybe he’s smart enough to see how far from ordinary you are. Besides, he doesn’t strike me as the superficial type who’d be looking for a brainless bimbo to decorate his arm.”

“Besides, there’s another issue. The fan thing.”

“The fan thing?”

“Back when you used to idolize Chris Isaak, what would you have done if he’d called and asked you out?”

“I’d have said yes, and he’d have ended up flat on his back in my bed—or his, it wouldn’t have mattered—before the end of the first date. Next question.”

Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. “True. You’re not a good example.”

“But I think I see what you’re saying. You’re not sure if you really want to bear William Darcy’s children or if you’re just starstruck.”

“That’s extreme, but, yeah.”

“And you don’t want to get in too deep until you know for sure. That’s entirely reasonable. So why not talk to him about it? Tell him you’re interested, but you want to take it slowly.”

“Jane said the same thing yesterday morning.”

“Then start listening to us. We’re older and wiser, you know.”

Elizabeth snickered. “You’re not even two months older than I am.”

“I’m talking experience, not calendar years. On that basis, I could be your grandmother.”

“Okay, grandma. Don’t forget your cane when you go out today.”

Charlotte laughed. “Speaking of going out, I’ve got to run. I’m presenting a paper at Stanford this morning and traffic is going to be a nightmare. I could call you back once I’m in the car if you want.”

“No, that’s okay. I’m feeling better now. Thanks for listening, and for the good advice.”

“Thank me by calling William,” Charlotte shot back.

“I’ll think about it. And I’ll see you tomorrow at the airport. You have my flight number and arrival time?”

“Yeah, I’m all set.” Charlotte paused for a moment and then continued. “Just one more thing, Liz, and then I really do have to go. Your past is just that, the past. Don’t you think it’s time to start living in the present?”

“Char—”

“William is not Michael. But you’re punishing William for Michael’s sins. That’s not fair. Plus, you’re making yourself miserable.”

Elizabeth’s eyes stung with sudden tears, and she didn’t reply.

“Just think about it, okay?” Charlotte said.

“Okay,” Elizabeth answered in a voice barely above a whisper. “Bye.”

She hung up the phone and dabbed her eyes with a tissue, her mind a jumble of contradictory thoughts. She stared at the phone in silence for several seconds and almost reached for it, but then she shook her head. No, I need to think things through first.

It was time to get moving, that much was certain. She had hidden under the covers sniffling for long enough. She took a deep breath, glanced at the orchid once more, and headed for the bathroom to take her shower.

------
1 “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” (D. Mann/B. Hilliard). Sung by Frank Sinatra on In the Wee Small Hours, © Capitol Records, 1998, originally released 1955. Listen to a sample on iTunes.