“I swear, sometimes I think that woman has ice water in her veins,” Mrs. Reynolds sniffed.

“Now, Marcia, she just believes that you do your duty, no matter what,” Sonya replied.

Rose Darcy was the topic of conversation in the kitchen. Despite Mrs. Reynolds’s suggestion that Rose return home to rest, the indomitable woman had gone directly from the hospital to a charitable foundation board meeting.

Sonya was planning to accompany Mrs. Reynolds back to the hospital early in the morning, and she had used this excuse to justify spending the night in one of the guest rooms. Though she would never have admitted it, her calm demeanor during the day had masked great concern for William, and she preferred not to go home and worry alone. Worrying in company felt better, somehow.

Mrs. Reynolds set a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies on the table. “All I know is, it seemed insensitive for Mrs. Darcy to go to a meeting while that poor boy lies in a hospital bed fighting for every breath.”

Sonya almost laughed. Marcia could be so melodramatic sometimes. “It’s not that bad. William’s doing much better. Besides, I’m sure Rose would point out that she can’t do anything for him tonight, so why not live up to her other obligations? Stiff upper lip, the show must go on, that sort of thing.”

“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Reynolds said, sounding impatient.

“I think this is how she copes; she carries on as though everything is normal. But did you see her face when we left his room tonight? She’s as worried as anybody else.”

“I know that she loves him. I just wish she’d show it sometimes. Love isn’t worth much if you hide it away where nobody can see it.”

“Maybe she believes that William is an adult and doesn’t need to be fussed over or mothered,” Sonya suggested with a sly smile, knowing what she would hear in response.

“You’re never too old for some mothering.”

Sonya grinned. “He’s lucky to have you to take care of that.”

Allen strolled into the kitchen and joined them at the table. Mrs. Reynolds poured him a cup of coffee while he helped himself to a cookie.

“Sonya and I need to be at the hospital no later than six tomorrow morning,” Mrs. Reynolds told him. “They said they’d start prepping him for surgery at about six thirty, and we want to see him before then.”

“No problem,” Allen replied. “Will Mrs. Darcy and Georgiana be going with you?”

“Mrs. Darcy hasn’t mentioned it, but I’m sure she’ll come. I told Georgie to wait until the afternoon, when he’ll be back in his room. I don’t want her having to hang around for hours worrying about him.”

“I think she’ll be fine, if she wants to come.” Sonya always did her best to combat the tendency in the Darcy house to treat Georgiana like a timid seven-year-old. “And William would be glad to have her there.”

“We’ll see,” Mrs. Reynolds said in a dismissive tone. Obviously her mind was made up. “By the way, Allen, I’m planning to stay at the hospital till late afternoon, and then I have to come back here to fix dinner. I’m going to need you to go to the market for me and run some other errands.”

“Who’s taking care of the house?” Allen asked.

“Serena said she could be here by nine.” Serena was the part-time maid who assisted Mrs. Reynolds. “Until then, you’ll have to manage. I’d rather not leave the house in that girl’s hands again tomorrow, but I don’t know what else to do.”

“She was here minding the store most of the day today, and she didn’t burn the place down,” Sonya said, winking at Allen.

Allen chuckled, and Mrs. Reynolds eyed both of them with a long-suffering air.

Sonya yawned. “I think I’m going up to bed. It’s been a tiring day.”

Mrs. Reynolds put a hand on Sonya’s arm. “Before you go, we have to make a decision about calling his friends.”

Here we go again. “As I said earlier, I agree with you about contacting Charles Bingley. It’s still early on the west coast. Maybe I’ll go back up to my office and try to reach him now, before I go to bed.”

“Did you clear this with William?” Allen asked.

“In Charles’s case, William wouldn’t object,” Sonya replied. “Charles is supposed to go to Pemberley with William and Georgie next week, and this may change their plans, so he needs to know.”

Allen grunted and nodded.

“And Elizabeth Bennet?” Mrs. Reynolds asked, sitting back and folding her arms across her chest.

Sonya almost laughed aloud at the intensity of Marcia’s challenging stare. “You see, Allen, your wife and I disagree on this point. She thinks I should call Elizabeth. I think we need William’s approval.”

Mrs. Reynolds blew air between her tightly compressed lips. “Imagine how thrilled he’d be to wake up and find her holding his hand. He’d thank us.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Sonya said. “What if he doesn’t want her to know he’s in the hospital?”

“Why on earth wouldn’t he want her to know?”

“They haven’t known each other for that long, and you know how William is about his medical issues.”

“I agree with Sonya,” Allen said. “You shouldn’t make assumptions about what William would want, especially not where Miss Bennet is concerned.”

“Well, of course I can count on you to disagree with me.” Mrs. Reynolds scowled at her husband. “But what if they were supposed to go on a date tonight? The poor girl is probably at home crying her eyes out, thinking he stood her up. Maybe that’s why he wanted his cell phone, to call her and explain.”

Sonya shook her head. “I specifically asked if there were any calls he needed me to make, and he said no.”

“Then why do you think he wants the phone?” Mrs. Reynolds asked.

Sonya shrugged. “Maybe he was expecting a call and wanted to check his messages.”

Mrs. Reynolds’s face lit up. “Of course! A call from Elizabeth! We have to find out.”

“There you go again.” Allen said, shaking his head. “Privacy be damned; my wife wants to know what’s going on.”

“Oh, hush,” Mrs. Reynolds said tartly.

“I can’t do that,” Sonya said, “William specifically told me not to check his messages. Perhaps the call is something he wants kept private.”

“Like a message from Elizabeth Bennet.” Mrs. Reynolds stood up and carried her coffee cup over to the sink. “All the more reason to call her.”

Sonya shook her head. “Sorry, Marcia, but I disagree. We’ll talk to William first thing in the morning, and if he gives us the go-ahead, we’ll call her.”

Mrs. Reynolds stood at the sink with her back to Sonya, but she made her disapproval clear through a heavy sigh and some unnecessarily loud clattering of dishes.

“I thought he couldn’t remember where he left the phone,” Allen said.

“That’s right,” Mrs. Reynolds called over from her station at the sink. “And I looked around his rooms but didn’t see it.”

“I even tried calling it while Marcia was up there to see if she could hear it ring,” Sonya said. “So I guess either the battery is dead or he turned it off. Maybe by tomorrow morning he will have remembered where it is.”

“And if he does remember, Allen can bring it over later,” Mrs. Reynolds added.

“I don’t understand,” Allen said, his frown deepening. “If you don’t have the phone right now, how would you check his messages, even if you wanted to?”

“There’s a voicemail number you can call from any phone,” Sonya explained.

“Then why does William need the phone?” Allen looked and sounded baffled.

“He’s not exactly a cell phone expert,” Sonya said with a smile. “So he probably doesn’t know about the other way to get messages. I mean, he really never showed much interest in his cell phone until—”

“Until Elizabeth Bennet came on the scene,” Mrs. Reynolds interrupted. “Which is why we should—”

“We’ll ask him tomorrow, Marcia,” Sonya said, standing up abruptly. She was tired of arguing the point. “Until then, we’re going to wait. Good night; I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Caroline Bingley’s entire body tingled with anticipation as she emerged from a cab in front of the Darcy townhouse. Ever since she had seen William at the wedding five weeks before, she had been obsessed with the idea of doing whatever it would take to get him into her bed, and then to the altar.

It was maddening that Elizabeth Bennet had been able to pursue William unchecked for those same five weeks, while Caroline stayed in San Francisco, working long hours to untangle the mess Charles had left behind.

I suppose William has bedded the little slut a few times; he was panting after her in San Francisco, and obviously she’d be thrilled to get her hooks into someone with his money and fame. But he’d never get involved with her beyond taking advantage of what I’m sure she’s been throwing in his face. Not with that horrid family of hers. Besides, she lacks style and elegance. And class.

Caroline passed through the gate and rang the doorbell. She hadn’t warned William of her impromptu visit to New York. Her best chance of gaining admittance to the house was to show up unexpectedly. He’ll be feeling guilty for the way he scolded me in San Francisco. If I can just get past that old harridan at the front door, he’ll be glad to see me.

To her surprise, an elderly man answered the door. “Yes, ma’am?” he said.

“Good morning. I’m here to see William Darcy. I’m an old friend of his.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, Mr. Darcy is not at home. But if you’ll give me your name, I’ll be happy to tell him that you called.”

Caroline knew better than to fall for the ‘not at home’ ploy. She switched on the warmest smile she could muster. Warmth wasn’t her strong suit, but she did her best. “My name is Caroline Bingley. I’m sure William must have mentioned me. My brother Charles is one of his dearest friends.”

The man’s face lit up with recognition. “You’re Mr. Bingley’s sister? It’s a pleasure to meet anyone related to him.”

“Thank you. But about William—”

Understanding lit up the man’s features. “Of course! You’re here because Mr. Bingley learned about William’s troubles and sent you to check on him.”

William’s troubles? Okay, whatever. “Yes, that’s right. Charles was concerned, and we were so pleased that I was here in town and could stop by. But you say William’s not here?”

“No, ma’am. He hasn’t been released from the hospital yet.”

Caroline flinched at the word “hospital,” but she quickly molded her features into what she hoped was a sympathetic expression. “Oh, what a shame. I must have misunderstood what Charles told me. I thought William was already back at home. How is he doing?”

“They expect him to be much better later today, after his procedure. But he’ll be in the hospital for at least another day or two.”

“Then of course I’ll go over there to see him right away. Which hospital is it?” She paused and then added quickly, “Charles couldn’t remember.”

“He’s at New York Presbyterian, just a few blocks from here.” Allen hesitated. “I doubt his procedure is finished yet, so it may be a while before he’s allowed any visitors.”

“I don’t mind waiting.” She had no intention of sitting in a depressing waiting room on an ugly plastic chair, but she was sure there would be a way to slip into William’s room unnoticed by the nursing staff.

“In that case, may I offer you a ride? I’m heading over there now.”

Caroline maintained a neutral expression, but inside she was exulting in her good luck. Things couldn’t have gone better had she planned every detail herself. William’s illness didn’t trouble her at all, since his servant didn’t seem overly concerned. The important part was that William would be a stationary target at the hospital, possibly in need of companionship. I’ll make myself his angel of mercy.

The driver escorted Caroline to a spotless Mercedes sedan sitting at the curb. They got into the car and pulled away down the street. “We’ll be there in just a few minutes, ma’am.”

Caroline smiled and leaned back against the soft leather upholstery. The car wasn’t as luxurious as her father’s immense limousine, but it was adequate for now. After the wedding, she would convince William to upgrade to something larger.

She wondered why she had felt compelled to intensify her pursuit of William. Louisa had suggested, only partly in jest, that Caroline’s biological clock must be ticking. She shuddered in revulsion at the thought. The last thing I want is a screaming, slobbering brat whose diapers constantly need changing. I suppose I’ll have to produce at least one; William will want an heir. But that’s why there are nannies and boarding schools and summer camps. I could even hire a surrogate to carry the thing before it’s born, if I could think of some excuse he’d believe.

“Here’s the hospital, ma’am,” the driver said. “I wonder if I might ask you to take something upstairs to Mr. Darcy.”

“Of course. I’d be happy to do anything to help poor, dear William.”

The driver opened the door for Caroline and handed her a cell phone. “I was going to drop this off and leave again; I have some errands to run for the household. If you wouldn’t mind taking it upstairs, it would be a great help.”

“Of course. Think nothing of it,” Caroline chirped with all the graciousness she could fake.

“Thank you, Miss Bingley. He’s in room 932. You’ll need to get a visitor’s badge at the front desk.”

On her way to the information desk, she turned the phone on. She retrieved her own phone and entered his phone number when it was displayed. William had always refused to give her his private number. Now, when that witch of a housekeeper wouldn’t put Caroline’s calls through, she would still be able to reach him.

Then she looked more closely at the phone, overwhelmed by the notion that his strong, sensuous mouth had been close to the mouthpiece. She ran her finger over it, but then shook her head sternly. Don’t be a fool. The fact that you’re dying to get him into bed is dangerous. It makes you careless. Keep your eye on the prize.

Then she noticed the small yellow Post-it attached just below the phone’s LCD display. “VM PW: 061189,” she read aloud. His voicemail password!

Her eyes gleamed as she navigated the phone’s menus and connected to the voicemail system. When it requested the password, she entered it. “You have two new messages,” the system informed her. But as she listened to the first message, her triumphant grin twisted into a vengeful snarl.

“Hi, William. It’s Elizabeth. I’ve been thinking about last night, and I’d like to talk to you. I’ll be home tonight, so if you could call, or better yet, stop by, I’d like that. ”

If she has his private phone number and is calling to talk to him about “last night,” it must be more than a one-night stand. That little bimbo! She probably seduced him by flaunting her cleavage. Trust a man to be stupid enough to fall for that tired old routine.

Caroline glanced down at her own flat chest, momentarily disheartened, but she rallied her spirits. I’d much rather have brains than boobs, and I’ve got style and class beyond anything she could ever comprehend. Besides, anyone with money and a good plastic surgeon could have a bigger chest; that was probably how the little slut had gotten hers.

Her attention was drawn back to the phone, which was giving her instructions. “Erase, press seven; save, press nine; more options, press zero.”

Caroline pressed “seven” on the telephone’s keypad. “Message erased,” the system told her. “Next message,” it said, and again Elizabeth’s voice came through the small speaker. This message had been recorded late yesterday afternoon. Caroline smirked at the diffident tone in Elizabeth’s voice. She waited all day, but he didn’t call her, and she was getting worried that she was losing her meal ticket. Aw, poor thing. Snickering, she erased the message.

There were no more messages. Caroline turned off the phone and strode to the reception desk to pick up her visitor pass, a predatory gleam in her eyes.

 

Elizabeth dropped her backpack on the floor beside her suitcase. The moving company had departed with her collection of boxes a short time ago, and she had just called for a cab to take her to the airport. Splurging on a cab was a new experience, but the conservatory’s job offer had included an allowance for travel expenses, so she had decided to depart New York in style. She circled the apartment, scanning for anything she might have forgotten to pack, but everything she saw belonged to Sally, with one exception.

The orchid. The sight of it reminded her of her recent troubles. William hadn’t returned either of her phone calls. Late last evening she had begun to dial his number one more time, but she had hung up before the call went through. He hadn’t returned her calls. To bother him a third time would only make her look desperate, pathetic, or both.

She would never know what might have happened had she behaved differently on Wednesday night, but obviously whatever connection they might have shared was broken. And for that reason, the orchid belonged with William, back in the rooftop greenhouse.

But how to return it, without looking like she was trying to force him to see her? She considered asking Sally to handle it, but that would involve explanations she didn’t want to offer. Besides, that was the coward’s way out. She had plenty of time before her flight departed—more than enough time to handle this one last obligation.

With the orchid in her hand, she went into the kitchen and found Sally eating a late breakfast of plain yogurt and half a grapefruit. “Are you all set to go?” Sally asked.

Elizabeth nodded. “More or less.”

“You’re just carrying the orchid like that? Shouldn’t you … I don’t know, put it in a box or stick a huge baggie over it or something for the flight?”

“I’m not going to … it’ll be fine.” Elizabeth sat down at the table, inspecting her fingernails, but she could feel Sally’s eyes on her.

“Lizzy, is there something you haven’t told me? You’ve been quiet since yesterday, and you seem kind of depressed.”

“I’m leaving you and Jon and my other friends. Isn’t that a good reason to be sad?” Elizabeth stood up, glancing at her watch again.

“I hope that’s all it is.”

“It is. But I guess I need to say goodbye now.”

Sally rose to her feet. “I’m going to miss you, Lizzy. I hope the job, and being back in San Francisco, is as wonderful as you’re hoping it will be.”

Elizabeth hugged Sally. “I’m going to miss you too.”

“I don’t know where Jon is. Maybe he overslept. He had to work till closing last night, but he meant to be here in time to say goodbye.”

“Give him a kiss for me.”

“It may be for the best. He’d have started bawling, and then I would have cried too, and you know how I hate to do that.”

Elizabeth smiled through her own sudden tears. “Tell him that if he ever gets to the Bay Area, he’s got a place to stay. That applies to you too.”

“And you’ll be back here before long to visit William, won’t you? Or has he already planned his first trip out there to see you?”

Elizabeth forced a weak smile onto her face. “I’d better go. I’ll call you in a few days.” She collected her things, took one last look around the dingy apartment, and walked away from her life for the past five years.

 

Half an hour later, Elizabeth stood in front of the Darcy townhouse, staring the door. She had worked out a plan in the cab. There was no need to deal with the embarrassment of seeing William. She would leave the orchid with Mrs. Reynolds, explaining that she didn’t think she could care for it properly. If Mrs. Reynolds invited her inside, she would explain that she had a plane to catch.

Her heart was constructing its own version of the visit, one where William heard her voice and rushed downstairs to see her, blurting out an excellent reason for not calling her. Dream on, Lizzy. This isn’t a fairy tale. This is life.

She took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. A chime sounded inside the house. Finally, after a wait that seemed interminable, she heard footsteps approaching the door.

A young, dark-haired woman answered the door. “May I help you?” she asked.

“Yes, good morning. My name is Elizabeth Bennet and I’m here to see Mrs. Reynolds.”

“I’m sorry, but she’s not here.”

So much for my brilliant plan. “Will she be back soon?”

“I’m not sure. She’s at the hospital.”

Elizabeth gasped. “Oh, no, what happened to her?”

“Mrs. Reynolds is fine.”

“So is she just in the hospital for tests?”

“No, she’s not the one who—” The maid stopped speaking abruptly. “I’m sorry. I can’t give out that kind of information to strangers.”

Not Mrs. Reynolds. Was it a friend of the family? Or perhaps something had happened to Rose Darcy. If so, William would be worried and preoccupied, and could easily have forgotten to check his messages. That would change everything.

“Is Allen—Mr. Reynolds—here?” Elizabeth asked. She needed to know the truth, and she thought Allen would tell her.

“I think he’s at the hospital with everybody else.”

“Then it must be a family member who’s sick.”

The maid bit her lip. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I really can’t say.”

Elizabeth decided to try another approach. “What’s your name?”

“Serena.”

“Hi, Serena. Like I said, my name is Elizabeth Bennet. I know you’re just trying to protect the family’s privacy.”

“Mrs. Reynolds is strict about that.”

“But here’s the thing. I was here on Tuesday night for dinner.”

Serena’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute. You said your name was Elizabeth Bennet?”

“That’s right.”

“I remember that name. Mrs. Reynolds cooked a fancy meal on Tuesday, and I helped out with the cleaning, and with setting a table up on the roof. She didn’t tell me what was going on, but I heard her talking to Mr. Darcy about someone who was coming to dinner. That was you?”

“Exactly! So, you see, I’m not a stranger. And you have me worried about the family right now. Please, could you tell me who’s in the hospital?”

Serena frowned, biting her lip, but at last she leaned forward spoke in a low voice. “You have to promise not to tell Mrs. Reynolds that I said anything.”

“I promise.”

Serena glanced to either side and whispered, “It’s Mr. Darcy.”

Elizabeth’s heart stuttered. That possibility hadn’t occurred to her. “What’s wrong with him?”

“All I know is that he was running in Central Park yesterday morning and got sick, and he had to go to the hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

“New York Presbyterian.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you very much.” She raced back to the curb, jumped into the back seat of the cab, and told the driver that they wouldn’t be going to the airport next after all.

 

Caroline Bingley sighed and shredded yet another paper napkin, adding it to the little paper blizzard already piled on her table. She had been sitting in the coffee shop just off the hospital’s main lobby for what seemed like hours, drinking bad coffee and staring discontentedly at the steady stream of people passing by.

She had swept triumphantly into the CCU with her best “angel of mercy” manner draped around her like a shining mantle, only to find William’s room empty. The nurse would only say that he was somewhere in the hospital undergoing a procedure. “Besides, the only visitors we allow up here are family,” the nurse had added, while Carolyn silently lamented not claiming to be his sister. Or his fiancée.

As soon as the nurse was out of sight, Caroline had slipped into William’s room and set his cell phone on a table near the sink. She preferred that William not know the phone had been in her possession, not that it realy mattered much. Even if Allen mentioned it, William had no reason to suspect her of having accessed his voicemail.

He was probably back in his room by now, and Caroline considered going upstairs to see him; she was certainly clever enough to sneak past the nurses. But Rose and Georgiana might be with him, and that would spoil everything. Besides, what’s the point in being there while he’s asleep?

But she was too bored to sit in the coffee shop any longer. It occurred to her that Barneys was nearby. For that matter, so was Saks. And if I have time after I shop for myself, I’ll buy something for William. Maybe a nice silk robe.

She snatched her purse from the chair next to her and stalked toward the hospital exit. As she approached the revolving door, she glanced negligently toward the reception desk and froze in dismay. Elizabeth Bennet stood there, attaching a visitor’s pass to her blouse.

Caroline’s jaw clenched and her hands formed into fists. She wasn’t sure how to deal with this interloper, but until she could devise an effective strategy, she would monitor the situation from a safe distance. She followed Elizabeth toward the elevators, careful to stay out of her rival’s line of sight. Shopping would have to wait.

 

Elizabeth stepped off the elevator on the ninth floor and looked around, hesitating, until she saw a sign directing her to the CCU. Cognizant of the growing sum on the meter, she had dismissed the cab. The security guard had reluctantly allowed her to leave her suitcase and backpack at the reception desk, but she had brought the orchid upstairs with her.

She gazed at the plant sadly. It hadn’t weathered the trip from her apartment very well. When she had emerged from the cab at the hospital, she had bumped the plant against the door frame. She had creased the stem badly enough that she had to remove a portion of it, and along with it half the plant’s blooms. Still, those that remained hadn’t lost their vivid beauty.

Her heart pounded as she approached room 932. She bit her lip when she saw him through the doorway, his eyes closed, an IV tube attached to his arm. She stepped into the room and set the orchid down on a table. “Oh, William,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

A monitor mounted high above his head beeped quietly, but she didn’t look at it; she couldn’t take her eyes off him. His face was ashen, a slight blue tinge to his lips, and he seemed to have aged ten years since she saw him last. With hesitant steps, she approached the bed and gazed down at him.

The monitor above his bed emitted a shrill, insistent alarm, and she jumped, her heart racing. She hurried into the hall, nearly colliding with a nurse.

“It’s William—Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth cried, her voice taut with fear. “Something’s wrong!”

The nurse nodded. “I was on my way to check on it.” She entered the room with Elizabeth trailing at her heels and reset the monitor, silencing it. “It’s time to change his IV, that’s all.”

That, at least, was a relief. “What’s wrong with him? Since he’s in this unit I assume it’s something with his heart?” Elizabeth asked. She noted the nurse’s name, Ann, on her ID badge.

“Are you a family member?” Ann asked.

“No, I’m—” Elizabeth hesitated. “I’m … a friend.”

“I’m sorry, but I can only give out information to family members.” Ann’s tone was kind but firm.

“It’s just that … can you at least tell me if he’s going to be okay? I mean, he’s not going to …” Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to say the word “die.”

“He’s going to be fine,” Ann said with a smile. “His family should be back soon, and I’m sure they’ll fill you in on the rest. They’re having an early lunch while he’s sleeping.”

“What about the alarm?”

“His IV bag needs to be replaced; that’s all.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath, hoping it would slow her racing heart. “Do you expect him to wake up soon?”

Ann shook her head. “I doubt it. They gave him a strong sedative this morning, and he was tired and weak enough that the drugs have really been affecting him.”

“Tired and weak?” That didn’t sound good.

“We’re taking care of that, don’t worry. He’s going to be fine.”

Elizabeth sighed. “Thank you. Is it okay if I sit with him for a few minutes?”

Ann hesitated, but something in Elizabeth’s eyes must have convinced her. “The only visitors are supposed to be family, but if you promise to be quiet …”

“Of course.”

Ann left the room, and Elizabeth approached the bed. She took William’s hand and gazed down at him, comforted by the gentle rise and fall of his chest.

I’ve been kidding myself, haven’t I? The way I feel … it’s not about William Darcy the pianist. It’s about you: the way your face comes to life when you smile, and how quickly I’ve come to crave that sight.

It’s about how comfortable and … right, somehow, it feels to sit with you, talking about music, or history, or nothing at all. It’s about the way your kisses turn me to mush. And most of all, it’s about the glimpses I keep catching of something vulnerable inside you, something that makes me want to hold you close and protect you from the world.

Her eyes filled with tears, and she tightened her hold on his hand. How could she have been so cold to him, saying those cruel things and twisting every word that came out of his mouth in the worst possible way? He had begged her to listen, to believe his declaration of love. But I insulted him and kicked him out. And only a few hours later, he ended up in the hospital. In the unit where they deal with heart problems, no less.

She brushed away her tears with her free hand. She was being ridiculous, thinking that she had caused this. Hearts don’t really break, not literally. Although, what if he was so upset that he didn’t get any sleep, and then he went out the next morning and …

No. Stop it.

She had to stop exaggerating her importance to him. What happened between them couldn’t have devastated him that badly, not when they barely knew each other. He was a grown man with money and connections and a place in the world, not a sad little boy who needed her protection. He had been getting along without her for thirty years … and he had enough experience with women to know that the word “love” could be an effective seduction tool.

Even as this thought entered her mind, she recognized that it wasn’t entirely fair. When he said he loved me, it might have felt that way in the heat of the moment. She still couldn’t accept that William’s feelings for her were that deep, but he deserved a chance to explain himself. Above all, she knew that she wasn’t ready to write him out of her life.

She reached out with her free hand, her fingers skimming his cheek. His skin felt cool to the touch. Then she stroked his hair gently, smoothing it off his forehead. For a moment it seemed that he tightened his grip on her other hand, but his eyes remained closed.

Ann returned to the room, carrying an IV bag, and went to work preparing it.

Elizabeth checked her watch, distressed to see how late it was. She had to leave for the airport now or risk missing her flight. She considered rescheduling, but it was a non-refundable ticket. She doubted that the conservatory would pay rebooking penalties, and she certainly couldn’t afford the fees herself. She released his hand slowly, caressed it for a moment, and then stepped away from the bed with a sigh. He seemed to stir slightly but, again, his eyes remained closed.

“I thought for a minute he was going to wake up,” she said quietly.

“He may have felt you holding his hand, and he didn’t want you to let go. How long have you two been dating?”

Elizabeth felt herself blushing. “How could you tell?”

“It’s pretty obvious, with the way you look at him, and the way you touched his hand just then.”

“We’ve only gone out a few times. I just met him a little over a month ago.”

“Well, if you want my advice, don’t let him get away. You can tell a lot about people from the way they behave when they’re sick.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to say in response. She busied herself with inspecting the orchid, wondering what to do with it. Then she noticed a cell phone sitting beside it. So he’s heard my messages. But he’s probably been too sick to call me back.

She went to the nurses’ station and asked for a sheet of paper. Leaning against the counter, she wrote:

Dear William,

I’m sorry I couldn’t stay till you woke up, but unfortunately I have to leave for the airport. Please, as soon as you’re feeling well enough, call me in San Francisco. The nurse says you’re going to be fine, but I’ll keep worrying until I hear your voice telling me that it’s true.

Also, as I said in my phone messages, we need to talk about what happened the other night. I have some things I need to ask you, and some things I need to tell you. But most of all I owe you an apology, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to deliver it.

I’m leaving the orchid with you, to watch over you while you sleep since I can’t do it myself.

She stared at the paper, wondering how to close the letter. Sincerely? Fondly? Nothing seemed right. Finally, she scribbled her name, followed by Jane’s phone number.

When Elizabeth returned to William’s room, Ann was adjusting the IV flow. “Okay, I’ll get out of your way now,” she said, stopping by the sink to wash her hands.

“Actually,” Elizabeth said, “I have to leave.” She felt tears welling up again.

Ann touched her arm, her eyes sympathetic. “Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him. And I’ll tell him you were here.”

Elizabeth folded the note, wrote William’s name on it, and set it in front of the orchid. Then she leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Get well soon,” she whispered. “And call me.” She turned to go, stopping at the door to look back at him one last time.

 

Caroline smiled to herself when she saw Elizabeth walking away. I thought she’d never leave. Luckily, William had slept through Elizabeth’s visit. Now I just have to hope the nurse doesn’t mention her name.

She slipped into William’s room and immediately noticed the orchid in its decorative clay pot sitting on the table. She grabbed the note in front of it and read it. Ah, so there’s trouble in Paradise. What a shame. Shaking her head, she crumpled the sheet of paper and shoved it into her purse.

Now, what about the orchid? Should I get rid of it too? She considered the question for a moment, and a smug smile came to her face. Leaving the orchid in place, she turned her back on William and strutted out into the hall. Time to go shoe shopping at Barneys.

 

William had been struggling toward consciousness for a while, but at last he was winning the battle. His head seemed to be filled with cotton, his leg ached, and his eyelids felt as though someone had sewn them shut while he slept. He forced them partway open, grabbing the bed rails on either side of him when the room began to spin.

He closed his eyes and lay quietly, waiting for his head to clear. This time when he opened his eyes, the world remained stationary, and he blinked, trying to clear his vision.

The last thing he remembered was being taken to the Angiography lab; he had apparently been asleep ever since. He recalled a dream, an incredibly vivid one in which Elizabeth had stood beside his bed. He could still feel her hand gripping his, the sensation so real that he had half expected to find her there when he awoke.

Wishful thinking. She’s gone, on her way to California and her new life, and if she’s thinking of me at all, it’s probably with disgust.

He tried to shift his position, grimacing at the twinge of pain coming from his leg. He reached down, exploring, and found a weighted covering of some sort over his lower torso. He felt beneath it and discovered a bandage covering his groin and upper thigh. They had told him about this in advance; they were protecting the puncture wound made by the catheter.

He swallowed and grimaced at the scratchy sensation in his throat. It took some fumbling, but finally he found his call button. A nurse he remembered from the previous day arrived quickly.

“Mr. Darcy, you’re awake! What can I do for you?”

“Could I get some water?” He scarcely recognized the rasping voice as his own.

“Of course; I’ll go get you some. Just lie still for now. We need to make sure you don’t start to bleed at the puncture site.”

She returned soon with a large Styrofoam cup with a straw protruding from its plastic lid. She operated the foot controls, elevating his bed slightly, and held out the cup. “I know you’re thirsty, but take little sips at first.”

He reached for it, and although his arms felt heavy and weak, he managed to grasp it, sipping the deliciously cold water through the straw. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now, do you feel up to some visitors?” she asked. “I told your family I’d let them know when you woke up; they’re down in the waiting room.”

William nodded, continuing to drink the water.

“You had another visitor too. Your girlfriend was here. It was against the rules because she’s not family, but I let her sit with you for a few minutes. She had to leave, but she left you that orchid.”

William followed her gaze, and inhaled a sharp breath, almost choking on his water. Lizzy’s orchid? Maybe she was here, and it wasn’t a dream. But the thrill in his heart died when he looked again. It was the same type of orchid, but it was smaller and in a decorative pot, not the plain one her orchid had occupied. Besides, even if she found out I was here and decided to visit me out of courtesy, she’d never describe herself as my girlfriend.

Then he noticed something lying beside the orchid. “Is that my cell phone?”

The nurse picked it up and showed it to him. “You can’t use it in here, but you’ll probably be moving to another floor this evening.”

William nodded. A delay of a few hours didn’t matter. Elizabeth was on her way to California by now. Besides, there was no realistic chance she had called.

The nurse set the phone back on the table. “I’ll go get your family.”

A question of some importance occurred to William. If it wasn’t Lizzy who came to visit me, who on earth would have been here, claiming to be my girlfriend? All too soon, his question was answered when a grating voice trilled a most unwelcome greeting.

“Darling, you’re awake! What a wonderful surprise!”

“Hello, Caroline.” He closed his eyes, wishing with all his heart that the sedatives hadn’t worn off so soon.

 

Later that evening, the last of William’s visitors were preparing to leave for the night. A few hours ago, he had been moved to a private room on the hospital’s cardiac care floor. He was grateful to have some degree of privacy after the fishbowl atmosphere of the CCU, with its glass walls and wide-open doorways.

“Please let me apologize again on Allen’s behalf,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “He feels terrible about it. When that horrid woman came to the house and mentioned her brother, Allen assumed she’d be welcome at the hospital.”

“It’s fine,” William said. This ground had been covered earlier, and he had assured Allen that he wasn’t to blame, but the Reynoldses were mortified. “I’m sure Caroline did everything in her power to mislead him. And really, there was no harm done.”

Caroline’s appearance had solved the mystery of the unidentified girlfriend. Of course she wouldn’t hesitate to describe herself that way. Mrs. Reynolds, with help from the nurse quoting CCU regulations, had shooed Caroline away quickly, but not before she had announced that the orchid was a gift from her. It was a surprisingly thoughtful choice. She must have consulted Charles, who was familiar with the rooftop greenhouse. How she had managed to select the same type of orchid he had given to Elizabeth was a mystery William would probably never solve. It amused him to imagine how angry Caroline would be if she knew that her gift would serve primarily to remind him of Elizabeth.

Caroline had said she would visit him again tomorrow, but he was feeling stronger now and would be better able to cope with her. Or if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll be out of here before she comes back.

Dr. Rosemont hadn’t been willing to commit to a release schedule when she had seen him earlier, though she had ordered some tests for the morning. For now, she would only say was that she was concerned about his blood pressure, and that he should get some rest.

I’m sure I’ll rest better tonight than last night. And if I don’t, it won’t be Mrs. Reynolds’s fault. He was wearing a pair of pajamas she had sent Allen to buy, and his favorite robe was draped at the foot of his bed, on top of a soft, warm blanket from one of the guest rooms. A stack of books sat on his bed table, next to a small stereo system and a pile of his favorite CDs. In addition, she had brought him a home-cooked dinner after consulting with one of the hospital’s dietitians to ensure that her selections would contribute to his convalescence. But there was one thing missing.

“Where’s my cell phone?” he asked.

“I put it in here,” Mrs. Reynolds said. She opened a drawer and handed it to him.

“I don’t understand,” Georgiana said. “You’ve always hated your cell phone. When did you start loving it so much?”

“Maybe he’s seeing things through new eyes now,” Sonya remarked from the doorway. She wasn’t allowed in the room. Mrs. Reynolds was enforcing the two-visitor rule, even though it didn’t apply on this floor.

William raised his eyebrows. Ordinarily he would have expected Sonya to agree with Georgiana’s logic. Their eyes met briefly, but he couldn’t read her expression. He turned his attention back to Georgiana, who was preparing to leave. She kissed his cheek and then she and Mrs. Reynolds departed. Sonya stayed in the doorway as the other two women walked away, and then slipped into the room.

“Do you know your voicemail password?” she asked quietly.

“Yes, thanks.” William congratulated himself on his foresight in writing the password on a Post-It attached to the phone.

“Good. Tell her I said hello when you talk to her. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

William shook his head with a reluctant half-smile as Sonya disappeared down the hall. Her mind-reading talents were frightening sometimes, though in this case she was slightly off-base. At least, unless Elizabeth called and left me her San Francisco phone number.

He turned the phone on, his heart beating a little faster. But his excitement faded when he saw that the display didn’t indicate that he had any messages waiting. Just in case, he connected to the voicemail system.

“No messages,” the system told him.

William shut off his phone, dejected. He hadn’t really expected a call from her, but until now there had been some hope. There was no longer any question in his mind. Elizabeth Bennet wants me out of her life. And I’m going to have to find a way to forget her.