As William climbed the steps to the third floor, the hum of conversation coming from the living room gradually receded. The cocktail hour before dinner was still in progress, but he had managed to slip away from the party unnoticed. At least, he hoped so.

He wandered into his bedroom and through the French doors onto his balcony. It was a cool evening, particularly for August, a pleasant contrast to the stuffy living room he had just escaped. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned his top shirt button and inhaled deeply.

That morning, Dr. Rosemont had approved William’s escape to Los Angeles, as long as he agreed to a few simple conditions. Tonight after dinner, he intended to call Charles to discuss the idea, and first thing in the morning he would have Sonya start making the arrangements.

Movement down below caught his eye; his Aunt Eleanor was leading Catherine de Bourgh on a tour of the garden. He exited the balcony, not wishing to be seen if they should look back toward the house. It was time to go back downstairs anyway, or he would face Gran’s disapproving stare when he returned.

 

“You’re not finished with your soup, are you?”

William glanced up at Mrs. Reynolds, who stood beside him eyeing his barely-touched bowl. “Yes, I am. But it was delicious.”

After a pause during which he could feel her eyes boring into him, Mrs. Reynolds removed his bowl without further comment. He looked across the table at Richard and shook his head, sighing. It was like this at every meal.

Catherine de Bourgh had done most of the talking through the appetizer and soup courses, with occasional comments from Rose, Aunt Eleanor, or Uncle Robert when they could wedge in a word or two. Richard had been satisfied so far to sit observing the scene, directing an occasional smirk in William’s direction. Georgiana simply stared at her place setting. William had said only as much as courtesy demanded, his mind restlessly analyzing different aspects of his plan to go to California. What did Richard call this? The Dinner Party from Hell? He wasn’t far wrong.

How different things would have been, had Elizabeth been there. He closed his eyes and imagined her sitting beside him, sharing private smiles with him at Catherine’s pompous statements and her incessant name-dropping. He saw his hand steal under the table to squeeze hers beneath the tablecloth, and he felt her warm fingers entwine with his.

“Will?”

He opened his eyes and realized that Georgiana had spoken to him. A salad sat in front of him, though he didn’t recall its arrival. He looked around the table and saw several pairs of eyes watching him with expressions ranging from curiosity to alarm.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Are you okay, Will?” Georgiana touched his arm. “Are you feeling sick?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m sorry, what were we talking about?”

“I was asking about your foundation’s new scholarship program,” Catherine said. “Your grandmother seemed to feel that I should hear more about it. But if you’re not interested in the dinner conversation—”

“Of course he is,” Rose interposed smoothly, giving William a warning look. “I mentioned the program to Catherine before dinner, William, and I said that you would fill her in on the details.”

“Ah. Well, yes, it’s intended to encourage young composers. We’re accepting applications from graduate students majoring in composition. They’re required to submit samples of their work.”

“How many awardees will you select?”

“We haven’t set a fixed number, but it will be somewhere between six and ten.”

“And what will they receive?”

“A stipend to support their education for a year. We also plan to hold a benefit concert featuring their work. We’ll probably produce a live recording of the concert as well.”

“You should be sure to select a few awardees who intend to compose for the piano. Then you could perform their compositions yourself.”

“Yes, in fact, that’s part of the plan.” William allowed a smug expression to creep onto his face. He loved being a step ahead of Catherine. “There’s going to be a special category for piano compositions.”

“I have some students at the conservatory who will be interested in applying. I assume you’ll be putting together a selection committee?”

“Yes, of course.” How he longed to reply, “No, we thought we’d just pick some applications out of the pile at random.” Richard would snicker, and he suspected he could get Georgie to laugh. But such behavior would mortify Rose.

“You’ll be using Juilliard faculty, I suppose,” she said in a clipped tone. “You seem to think they are superior to faculty at other institutions, though I’ve never understood why.”

William’s preference for his alma mater had long been a sore subject with Catherine. “I’m not certain yet who I’ll ask to serve.”

“I would be willing to serve on the committee should you wish to take advantage of my considerable expertise. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I’ve chaired many such committees, and have often recruited luminaries from the music world to assist me. And I have great affinity for composers. Lewis always said that I would have been an exceptional composer, had I chosen to pursue that path.”

Richard cleared his throat loudly. William glanced at his cousin, noting his unconcealed smirk.

Catherine turned her attention to her salad, leaving William free to re-immerse himself in his imagination, where Elizabeth’s company made the evening bearable. He scarcely noticed when Mrs. Reynolds arrived to remove the salad plates, again scowling at William’s untouched food.

 

“What did I tell you, Will? The Dinner Party from Hell. The rest of that scotch is going to come in handy later tonight.” Richard’s expression suggested that some excruciating torture had been visited on him.

William nodded. “Catherine knows how to make time stand still.” The cousins had temporarily taken refuge in the garden behind the house.

“I have to hand it to Mom,” Richard said. “She figured out how to escape.”

“Do you think she was faking?” Eleanor Fitzwilliam had developed a severe headache near the end of dinner. She and Robert had departed soon afterwards.

“I don’t know. But if she was, I wish I’d thought of it first. I don’t think it would work if I tried it now. Oh, and then Gran let Georgie go upstairs to practice. Another good excuse I wish I’d thought of.”

“Practicing piano? I guess you’ve forgotten that you don’t play.”

“Is it too late to start?” Richard grinned. “But I can think of other things I’d enjoy practicing … with the right partner, anyway.”

William smirked. “I’m surprised that you think you need practice in that area. I thought you were already the maestro.”

“Indeed I am, old man, but only because I practice constantly, just as Catherine was advising Georgie to do. Practice makes perfect and, as you know, I accept nothing less than perfection.”

“I know. You’re a role model for us all,” William said, grinning. “But, really, I’m surprised you’re so desperate to escape. You seemed to be enjoying yourself well enough at dinner, snickering at Catherine.”

“I believe in taking pleasure wherever I can find it. And the only possible source of enjoyment was to mock every word that outrageous woman said. Silently, of course, to stay out of trouble with Gran.”

“To stay out of worse trouble than you’re already in, you mean.”

Richard shuddered. “Don’t remind me. The look Gran gave me when I walked into the house nearly burned a hole through my forehead.”

Rose hadn’t said a word when Richard had strolled nonchalantly into the house only a few minutes before dinner was to be served; however, the look in her eyes had promised retribution as soon as their guest departed.

“You asked for it,” William said, shaking his head. “You know how she is about punctuality.”

“It’s called being fashionably late, Will.”

William chuckled. “You should know by now that Gran disapproves of that particular fashion.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see how it goes. And speaking of being in trouble, I gather you’ve gone public with the Fitzwilliam Plan.”

“You mean about LA? Yes, I did. Why? Did one of them say something to you?”

“Mrs. R. pulled me aside after dinner. Wanted me to talk you out of it.”

“Did you tell her it was your idea?”

Richard cleared his throat. “I was going to, but then I realized she’d probably poison my tea. She’ll forgive you eventually, but if she knew that I was the brains behind the plan, it’d just confirm her opinion that I’m beyond redemption. Have they been rough on you?”

William shook his head. “Not yet, but they haven’t had time to bring out the heavy artillery.”

“Don’t let them talk you out of it.”

“I won’t,” William said with certainty. “Say, I’m going in to get a glass of brandy. Want anything?”

“No, thanks. You coming back out?”

“As long as I don’t get trapped.”

William crept through the doors from the garden to the empty library. He could hear Catherine offering Rose a stream of nonstop advice on the preservation of a tapestry hanging in the hallway outside the dining room.

He tiptoed toward the small bar set up in the corner and poured brandy into a crystal snifter. He was about to return to the patio when a voice behind him startled him.

“William, there you are. I need to speak with you.”

It was Catherine, who had just entered the library with Rose close behind her. Catherine seated herself majestically on the sofa and watched William expectantly. He approached her, but he chose not to sit. His height was one of the few strategic advantages he enjoyed over her, and that advantage was of course magnified when she sat and he stood.

“Yes, Catherine?” he said, enjoying the feeling of looming over her.

“Sit down,” she snapped. “I can’t be expected to speak to you if I have to sit here craning my neck.”

William sat down, trying not to roll his eyes. “What do you want?” He knew that he sounded abrupt, but he didn’t have the patience to be ordered around by Catherine tonight.

“A few minutes ago, your grandmother told me that you had some absurd idea of going to Los Angeles to become a beach bum.”

William’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sure Gran didn’t say that.”

“I most certainly did not,” Rose interjected from across the room. From her tone, William suspected that Rose had had her fill of Catherine along with the rest of them.

“Not in so many words, but that’s certainly how it sounded,” Catherine said. “William, I feel bound to advise you for your poor mother’s sake. She would be horrified to see you considering such a frivolous pursuit. You’re generally a serious, hard-working young man. That shiftless cousin of yours must have had something to do with this.”

“I beg your pardon.” William rose to his feet. His voice and the expression in his eyes would have chilled the blood of a lesser opponent.

“Don’t get huffy with me, young man. Sit back down this instant. Los Angeles! I’ve never heard anything so absurd. For you to waste your talents this way, even for a short time—it’s disgraceful.”

“I’m taking my work with me, Catherine. I’m not going to lie on the beach all day.”

“Then prove it. If you want a break from New York, come to San Francisco instead. You could become a temporary member of the faculty at the conservatory.”

William stared at her, speechless.

“It would be a perfect place from which to administer the scholarship program. I’m sure several of our faculty members would be honored to serve on the selection committee. In fact, you could hold the winners’ concert in our new concert hall. And that master class I hear you’re about to teach at Juilliard—if you enjoy that sort of thing, you could teach an occasional seminar for us, and you could work with some of our more advanced graduate students. And give a few recitals to keep your performing skills sharp.”

Rose, who was listening to the conversation from across the room, spoke again. “Catherine, have you forgotten that William is convalescing from his heart problems?”

“I’m not suggesting that he run a marathon,” Catherine huffed. “We’ll bring you in as our Artist in Residence for the fall semester. You can set your own schedule, according to your health restrictions, as long as you fulfill a few basic obligations. There would be no salary, but you’re certainly not in need of one.”

William’s heart almost pounded its way out of his chest. Two words repeating in his head drowned out everything Catherine was saying: San Francisco.

“What’s up, Will?” It was Richard, who had just come in from the garden.

William looked at him mutely, still gathering his thoughts, so Rose spoke for him. “Catherine has invited William to spend the fall semester as Artist in Residence at her conservatory.”

“So you’d go to San Francisco instead of LA? Interesting idea. But you’d have to give up the LA beaches and all those surfer girls.”

“Of course that would be your primary consideration, Richard,” Catherine sniffed, her eyes glacial.

“You bet it would,” Richard replied cheerfully. “Blondes in bikinis, versus working for you? I’d pick the bikinis every time; I’m kind of twisted that way. But you should consider her offer, Will. I have a funny feeling you’d be happier up there than in LA.”

Catherine’s scowl faded as she absorbed the unexpected conclusion of Richard’s remarks. “I never thought I’d be saying this, but listen to your cousin, William. He’s giving you good advice for a change.”

“It’s an unaccustomed pleasure to agree with you, Catherine,” Richard said with an exaggerated bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a drink.”

Richard strolled away to the bar area, and William finally composed himself enough to speak. “I appreciate the offer, but I need some time to think about it before I make any commitments.”

“You can take a day or two, but we’ll need to move quickly. The semester starts quite soon and there are so many arrangements to be made. I’ll want to have Collins issue a press release immediately.”

“I’ll give you an answer before you leave New York.”

“Don’t pass up this opportunity, William. I wouldn’t make this offer to just anyone. But it’s the best way for you to stay active while you recuperate, and I owe it to your mother to look after you. In addition, I’m sure I don’t need to point out that it would give you and Anne a chance to spend more time together.”

“I wish you’d bring Anne with you to New York some day,” Rose said. “I haven’t seen her in years.”

“I considered bringing her this time, but as you know, her health is so delicate. I was afraid that the trip would be too much for her.”

Catherine departed soon after, citing plans for a late rendezvous with an important official from the Metropolitan Opera. William said a polite, if somewhat absent, good night and escaped to his sitting room, leaving Richard to fend for himself in the face of Rose’s disapproval. He had a great deal of thinking to do.

 

Shortly before midnight, William emerged from the elevator on the sixth floor and passed through the greenhouse, exiting to the roof garden and the cool night air. He gazed up absently, only vaguely aware of the moon, partially obscured by clouds.

Richard had left a few minutes ago, after nearly finishing the bottle of 50-year Macallan they had opened the previous night. William had consumed only one glass of scotch; between wine at dinner and a brandy afterwards, he had already drunk much more than he should. He knew that he hadn’t been good company for his cousin, but he couldn’t help it. Ever since Catherine had made her proposal, two words had rung continually in his head, silencing all other thoughts.

San Francisco.

He knew that Catherine’s motivation in making the offer had nothing to do with honoring Anna’s memory. It would be an impressive coup for Pacific Conservatory to form an alliance with a musical artist of William’s stature. While the school was highly respected on the West Coast, it had yet to achieve the strong national reputation enjoyed by only a handful of elite conservatories in the United States. The cachet lent by William’s residence there would make a difference.

The idea offered a surprising number of advantages on his side as well. He had long thought that he would enjoy mentoring young artists, and he would now have that opportunity. Furthermore, as she had suggested, he could give occasional recitals without the added stress of traveling. And she was correct that he could draw on the conservatory’s faculty and other resources to advance the young composers’ scholarship program.

Not every aspect of the plan was appealing. Catherine had long cherished the hope that William would marry her daughter Anne, and it was clear that she sought to advance that cause by bringing him to San Francisco. But he had been successfully fending off her matchmaking efforts for years.

But none of this is what I’ve been thinking about.

His eyes drifted across the garden to the table where he and Elizabeth had dined together less than two months ago. He remembered, for what seemed like the hundredth time, how lovely she had looked in the glowing candlelight, her eyes soft and warm as she smiled at him.

San Francisco.

But remember what she said that night at her apartment. “I don’t ever want to see you again.” What would she think if I showed up at the conservatory? Wouldn’t it seem as though I was chasing her? Have I no pride at all? Do I really want her to think I’m that desperate?

William walked over to the table and sat down. He closed his eyes and she materialized, sitting across from him. She reached out to caress his hand, and her radiant smile warmed his heart … until he remembered that she was only a vision. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes, staring at the empty chair.

God help me, but I am that desperate.

If there was the slightest chance that he could change her mind, he had to try. And so he would go to San Francisco, and risk the pain of being rejected … again.

 

By the following Friday evening, the house was in an uproar, or at least what passed for an uproar in the normally sedate Darcy home. Everyone, it seemed, was preparing to go somewhere.

Rose and Georgiana were leaving on Sunday for a week in The Hamptons. When these plans had been made in late July, William had intended to accompany them. Now that he was scheduled to leave for San Francisco on Thursday, they would be going without him. Rose had suggested that they postpone their trip until after William’s departure, but the imminent start of Georgiana’s school year made that impossible. In addition, the timing of their trip had one major advantage: they would be out of the house during Mrs. Reynolds’s upcoming absence.

As soon as he had announced his intention to spend the fall months in San Francisco, Mrs. Reynolds had swung into action, making plans of her own. She was to leave for San Francisco on Monday morning in order to make preparations for his arrival, and she would be staying for at least a week to, as she phrased it, “help him get settled.” William’s assurances that he could handle things himself had been summarily dismissed.

He would be living in a penthouse owned by Richard’s parents. When they had moved from San Francisco to New York, the Fitzwilliams had decided not to sell their former home, located in the fashionable Nob Hill district. They used it occasionally when they traveled west to visit friends, but it sat unoccupied much of the time.

“Aunt Eleanor told me that the cleaning people come every other week, even though it’s empty,” he had replied. “I’m sure it’s in good condition.”

Mrs. Reynolds had waved away his remark. “Trust me, it needs a good cleaning. Those services don’t do a proper job. Besides, you don’t know the first thing about hiring help, and you’re going to need a housekeeper. Fortunately, Mrs. Fitzwilliam says there’s plenty of space, so the housekeeper can have her own room without being in your way.”

William had argued that he didn’t need live-in help, and in the end he had prevailed. Mrs. Reynolds was to hire a part-time housekeeper who would work afternoons, leaving as soon as dinner was prepared. He had further insisted that the housekeeper be given weekends off, pointing out that he could dine in restaurants on those days.

In truth, he had opposed having a full-time housekeeper primarily because it interfered with his visions of romantic evenings and weekends with Elizabeth. He was becoming somewhat alarmed by the relentless optimism filling his heart, fearing that he was setting himself up for another crushing blow at her hands. There was no guarantee that she would welcome him, or even speak to him, yet his mind had leapt ahead to winning her love and devotion.

The rest of his plans were going well. He had completed his master class at Juilliard, receiving excellent feedback, and had tentatively agreed to teach again during the winter. Dr. Rosemont had referred him to a medical school friend, a noted cardiologist in the Bay Area. She had already sent Dr. Salinger copies of William’s records, and the two doctors had discussed his condition in detail over the phone. His first appointment in San Francisco was scheduled for the Monday after his arrival.

He and Sonya had worked hard over the past week to finalize plans for the young composers’ scholarship competition. They had also organized other business related to the foundation in order to ensure that things would run smoothly in his absence. She would make occasional trips to San Francisco to meet with him as needed, and he had made the supreme sacrifice of learning to use e-mail in response to her insistence that it would simplify communication.

“Otherwise, I know what’ll happen,” she had grumbled. “You’ll constantly be calling me at two in the morning, because it’s only eleven o’clock your time and you’ve just thought of something important. This way, you can e-mail me about your important thought instead, and I can get a decent night’s sleep.”

William was now the not-so-proud owner of a laptop computer that Sonya assured him was “the latest and greatest.” She had subjected him to a computer boot camp of sorts over the past week, doing her best to rapidly teach him the fundamentals of e-mail. His first message had gone to Charles Bingley, who had responded with alacrity and astonishment, both at the fact that William had “finally joined the information age” and at the news of his upcoming stay in California.

Sonya, in an impressive show of resourcefulness, had secured the sports car of William’s dreams. Obtaining a Ferrari 360 Spider convertible often required a wait of up to two years, but no one had ever questioned Sonya’s ability to find her way over, under, or around seemingly impenetrable obstacles. Even now the car awaited him in San Francisco, parked in the Fitzwilliams’ space in the building’s garage.

Even his body was finally cooperating. His blood pressure was close to normal and although exertion could still leave him breathless and dizzy, these occasions were much less frequent now. In response to his carefully offhand inquiry earlier that week, Dr. Rosemont had lifted the ban on sexual activity. “Just start slowly, okay?” she had said. “It wouldn’t do to have you expire on your first weekend in San Francisco, in the midst of some sort of marathon session.”

Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.

There was only one cloud on the horizon: Georgiana. She had opposed his plans to spend time in California, and continued to object long after Rose was reconciled to the idea. William promised to fly her out for a visit and to come home occasionally; however, it was obvious that she considered his departure a form of abandonment. He had traveled extensively for nearly her entire life, but perhaps she was feeling more possessive now because he had recently been seriously ill. Or perhaps, as Sonya had suggested, she was just being a typical 15-year-old, disapproving of everything her elders did. William wasn’t sure, and Georgiana wouldn’t discuss it. Trying to draw her out, he took her out to dinner one evening, to a concert another night, and on two shopping trips, but her mood continued to be sullen and uncommunicative.

 

Rose Darcy looked at the clock again. Only five minutes had passed since she had checked it last; it was nearly one o’clock in the morning. Rose, who believed in the “early to bed, early to rise” doctrine, had been trying to get to sleep for almost three hours.

She sat up in bed, noting the shadowy silhouette of her luggage. She and Georgiana were to depart after church for a friend’s estate in East Hampton. That must be why I’m restless tonight. Starting tomorrow, my family will be separated for a long time.

She got out of bed, sliding her feet into her slippers, and wrapped herself in the thin bathrobe lying at the foot of the bed. She walked down the long hallway from her bedroom to the sitting room she shared with Georgiana, feeling her way in the darkness. When she reached the sitting room, she shuffled across the floor, trying to avoid bumping into the furniture, and turned on a lamp.

Nearly everything in Rose’s sitting room had a history. Old family portraits in ornate frames graced the walls, and the rugs and furniture were all relics of an earlier time. Here, more than anywhere else in the house, Rose indulged her passion for the family’s history and traditions.

But it was not the historic portraits that caught her attention now. She picked up a framed photograph from an end table and gazed at it with rueful affection. It was a photo of William and his mother on the beach at Pemberley. Four-year-old William, looking somber and frail, was wrapped in Anna’s tight embrace.

Rose remembered this time with painful clarity. At age three, he had nearly died from complications following his surgery, and his recovery had been slow and fraught with setbacks. Rose gripped the photo tightly. The frightening experience had led her to forge a tentative bond with her daughter-in-law, despite her initial reservations about her son’s choice of wife. Together they had watched over the boy they both adored until eventually their fear of losing him had begun to recede. Or at least my fear receded. Anna never got over it.

The past two months had resurrected the memories … and the fear. Rose had lost both her husband and her son to sudden heart attacks. Since William’s hospitalization, she had been haunted by thoughts of losing him as well. She had gone about her business, meeting her various obligations with an air of calm control even while William was in the hospital; however, she had done so at a cost that her friends and family never suspected. Many a night she had awakened, trembling and drenched in perspiration, from a nightmare in which William died in the park before the ambulance arrived, or in which she received a middle-of-the-night phone call from an unknown doctor, announcing that her grandson was dead. But each morning, she had again assumed her mantle of composure, doing her duty to her family and friends.

And now he would be thousands of miles away. William was frequently absent from the house on performing trips, but this time, he would be gone for months. She wouldn’t hear the faint sounds of the piano during his long, frequent practice sessions, or see him sitting across the dinner table, smiling gently at something Georgiana had said. She wouldn’t hear his footsteps on the marble stairs, or his deep voice echoing through the house. And she knew that she would spend the next few months discovering a hundred other ways in which his absence left empty spots in her life.

It had not escaped her notice that William’s dark mood had cleared now that he was bound for California. Perhaps it was simply the promise of a change of scene, but she suspected that there was an additional explanation. Elizabeth Bennet was in San Francisco, and Rose was convinced that the young woman was far more important to her grandson than he would admit. She had chosen to keep silent and to trust William’s judgment, at least for the present, but she remained wary.

She left the sitting room and slowly descended to the third floor. She felt the need to say goodnight to William, and since he often stayed up late, there was a good chance that he would still be awake. Indeed, when she reached the third floor, she saw a weak shaft of light shining into the hall from his sitting room, the door slightly ajar. She knocked softly, but there was no answer. Nudging the door open, she peeked into the room and saw William asleep in his armchair, a book on his lap.

Rose tiptoed to his side, her eyes locked on him. “Sleep well, my dear boy,” she whispered, reaching out with trembling fingers to smooth his hair. She stood beside his chair for several minutes, memorizing every detail of his face. Then, with a soft sigh, she left the room as quietly as she had entered, carefully shutting the door behind her.

 

The following Wednesday evening, William and Allen sat together in the kitchen eating dinner. Each evening, Serena had offered to set a place for William in the dining room, but he considered it ridiculous to stand on ceremony when he and Allen were the only people in the house. Serena had gone home a short time ago after warming a casserole Mrs. Reynolds had left in the freezer and preparing a salad to accompany it.

The two men were mostly silent as they ate, the awkwardness of this unfamiliar dining arrangement combining with the natural reserve they shared to create a conversational vacuum.

“There’s something I need to ask you,” Allen said, breaking the silence.

William looked up expectantly.

“I was in your bedroom the other day, repairing the balcony door that kept sticking.”

“Oh, yes, I noticed that it was working better now. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Allen said. “But I wanted to ask about the orchid on your night table.”

William glanced at him, surprised. “What about it?”

“Do you want me to return it to the greenhouse while you’re gone? I can care for it in either place, but if it were in the greenhouse it would do better.”

William smiled. Trust Allen to be worried about an orchid. Over the years, he had become even more interested in orchid cultivation than William’s mother had been.

“That won’t be necessary. I’m going to take it with me to California.” The orchid had become too precious to William, due to its associations with Elizabeth, to leave behind.

“Then I should pack it up for you so it’ll travel well. It would be a shame if it got damaged again.”

“Again?” William frowned, confused. “What do you mean?”

“The end of the stem was broken off at some point. I thought maybe it happened when Miss Bennet brought it to you at the hospital.”

“It wasn’t from Miss Bennet,” William said, wondering where Allen got that idea. “It was a gift from Caroline Bingley.”

Allen set down his fork. “No, sir, that’s impossible. It’s the same orchid I took to Miss Bennet the day after she had dinner here.”

William froze, staring at Allen. “But … that orchid was taller. And it was in a different pot. It’s just the same type, that’s all.”

“No, sir, it’s the same plant. It seems to have lost the end of its stem, so it’s smaller now. As for the pot, the original pot was plain, and I thought something more decorative would be nice for the young lady, so I re-potted it before I delivered it.”

Oh, my God. “And you’re absolutely certain about this?”

“Yes, sir. I assumed that she gave it to you when she visited you.”

“Visited me where?”

“In the hospital,” Allen answered with a small frown.

“What are you talking about? Elizabeth didn’t visit me in the hospital.”

Allen’s face was a mask of confusion. “She didn’t? That’s strange. When I saw her leaving the hospital, I naturally assumed—”

“You saw her leaving the hospital? When?”

“It was the same day Miss Bingley was there. You know, when I made a mistake and drove her to the hospital.”

“Never mind about that. Tell me more about Elizabeth.”

“After I dropped Miss Bingley off, I had some errands to run for my wife. If I recall, she was planning your meals for the rest of your hospital stay, and she needed some things at the market. I finally made it to the hospital a little after noon, I suppose. As I came up the sidewalk, I saw Miss Bennet outside lugging a suitcase, trying to get a cab. She told me she was on her way to the airport. I offered to drive her, but she said, no, a cab would be fine, and in truth I couldn’t spare the time to drive all the way out there. So I helped her hail a cab, and then I came inside and found Marcia and Sonya and the family.”

This is impossible. “And you’re sure Elizabeth was at the hospital to see me?”

Allen hesitated. “I assumed that she was. Why else would she have been there?”

William couldn’t think of another reason either. “And you’re sure the orchid is the one you took to her.”

“Absolutely. I know every plant in that greenhouse, and I recognize the pot. I’m sorry, sir. If I’d had any idea that you didn’t know, of course I would have told you.”

“I understand. Thank you for telling me. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

William rose from the table, unable to sit still any longer. He trotted up the steps, his breathing somewhat labored by the time he reached the third-floor landing, and strode into his bedroom. He lifted the orchid from the table and inspected it closely, noting the broken stem.

That vivid dream I had about Elizabeth in the hospital that day … it must have been true, at least, some of it. She came to see me, but I was asleep. And that means—

William’s thought processes came to a crashing halt. What did it mean? She hadn’t left a note with the orchid. She hadn’t followed up with a phone call. Why would she leave the orchid beside his hospital bed and then depart without a word? Was she trying to erase me from her life? But then, why bring the orchid to the hospital? She could have left it at the house, or even given it away.

And how did she find out I was in the hospital? Did someone call her? I don’t think Sonya would have gone against my express wishes, but Mrs. Reynolds might have, if she believed it was for the best.

William’s eyes widened at a hazy recollection of a conversation with his CCU nurse that day. She had told him that his “girlfriend” had visited. I assumed that she meant Caroline, but what if—

He grabbed his cell phone, dialed Directory Assistance, and requested the number for the hospital. As he waited for the hospital switchboard to answer, reality set in. He shook his head and pressed the “Off” button to disconnect the call, wondering what he had been thinking. First of all, he didn’t remember the nurse’s name. Besides, it was unlikely that the nurse would remember a small incident from two months ago.

William tossed his phone on his dresser, seething with frustration. The phone slid across the dresser’s polished mahogany top and crashed to the floor. He began to retrieve it and then changed his mind. That useless thing can just stay there!

He yanked open the door to his balcony and stepped outside. He barely noticed the light rain gradually soaking his clothes as he stared into the darkness, waiting for the tension in his body to dissipate. As his mind grew calmer, he saw that there was only one option left.

I’ll just have to ask Elizabeth why she came to the hospital. If she’ll speak to me, that is.

William slept not at all on this, his final night in New York. He lay awake, adrenalin flooding his system as he thought of the orchid, Elizabeth, and what might await him in San Francisco.