William stepped out of the shadows and onto the deck surrounding the pool. Elizabeth stared at him, one hand pressed to her chest. “William! What are you doing out here?”

“I told you. We need to talk.”

“How did you know I was out here?”

“I saw you leave the ballroom. You looked upset, and I was worried about you. It took me a while to escape after I played, and then you weren’t on the terrace. But I saw someone down by the pool, and …” He shrugged.

Her nerves were momentarily soothed by this evidence of his solicitude. Don’t read too much into it. He saw you making a fool of yourself, and he’s being kind.

She sighed. “I’m sorry; it was rude of me to leave while you were playing. I just … I needed some air.”

He stepped closer to her, his eyes locked on hers. “Did it upset you, that I played the Intermezzo?” he asked softly.

“Of course not. Why should I care what you play?” She forced her hands to stop smoothing the wrinkles from her skirt. “The room was stuffy. I needed some air.”

“And you had to come all the way down here to find some?”

There was a hint of a smile in his voice, and when she looked up at him, she saw amusement mixed with the gentle concern on his face. She crossed her arms over her chest and leveled a challenging stare at him. “I thought other people might come out onto the terrace once you were done playing, and I wanted to be alone for a few minutes.”

The faint gleam in his eyes faded. “Do you want me to go?” he asked in a low voice.

“You don’t have to.”

They stood facing each other, both glancing around the pool area. Elizabeth rubbed her arms, trying to warm them.

William removed his tuxedo jacket. “May I?”

Elizabeth nodded, and he draped the jacket around her shoulders. “Thank you,” she said softly.

He slipped his hands into his pockets, staring at the flickering San Francisco skyline, his lips pressed tightly together.

“It’s like the rehearsal dinner,” Elizabeth said, primarily to fill the uneasy silence. “You lent me your jacket then too.”

He nodded, his eyes still on the distant city lights. “It seems like a long time ago.”

“Yes, it does. So much has happened since then.”

“Elizabeth—” He stopped abruptly and studied his shoes. When he raised his eyes to her face, she was astonished by the deep sadness in his expression. “Earlier, you asked if we could be friends. I don’t think we can.”

The tears Elizabeth had banished threatened to return. “I really blew it that night, didn’t I?”

“No, that’s not it—”

“Of course it is. You don’t need to be polite to spare my feelings. I was horrid to you. I should never have said all those hateful things.”

“But you were right—about some of it.”

“No. It was my fault that you got the wrong impression. What were you supposed to think, after the way we kissed, and after I let you into my apartment and let you stay for so long? Of course you assumed that we were going to …” She shrugged and sighed.

William shook his head in a vehement gesture. “Don’t blame yourself. I knew that you were uncomfortable, but I ignored it because it interfered with what I wanted. Every time I sensed that you were about to send me home, I did everything in my power to wear down your resistance.”

“I’m responsible for my own behavior. But I need to know something. Was I right that night? Was sex the only thing you wanted from me?”

His eyes darkened. “After all this time, you still believe that?”

“I don’t know what else to think. You say you don’t blame me for that night, but you never called me after that.”

A muscle in William’s jaw twitched. “You’re complaining because I didn’t call you?”

“Yes, and I think I have good reason.” Elizabeth couldn’t believe that he was trying to claim the high ground after ignoring her phone calls.

He raised his head, and his chin jutted out. “What about my reasons? You told me you never wanted to see me again.”

“I didn’t mean it. I regretted it the next morning.”

“And I was supposed to know which things you meant, and which you didn’t?” William squared his shoulders and folded his arms over his chest.

“No. You were supposed to call me back so I could explain.”

“And risk subjecting myself to another round of character assassination?”

“It should have been obvious that I wasn’t going to do that.”

“To a clairvoyant, perhaps,” he said, his tone resentful. “It wasn’t remotely obvious to me.”

Elizabeth couldn’t comprehend his attitude. Her messages had been clearly conciliatory; anyone who heard them should have understood. “Well, then, I suppose you’re right,” she said. “Obviously, we can’t be friends. And perhaps now you should go back to the house. Catherine and Anne are probably looking for you.”

William seemed to deflate, his shoulders slumping. “Wait. This isn’t how I wanted things to go.”

“Well, guess what? Even The Great William Darcy can’t always have what he wants. You came down here to tell me you didn’t want to have anything more to do with me. How did you think I’d react?” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Did you think I’d thank you for whatever miniscule crumbs you deigned to toss in my direction?”

“Of course not. Let me explain—”

“I don’t need an explanation,” Elizabeth said sharply, her teeth clenched. “I’ve got the basic idea already.”

“But—”

“I’m going back to the house. Feel free to stay out here if you want, though I imagine Catherine will have the bloodhounds on your trail before long. After all, we wouldn’t want to keep Anne waiting.” She hated the spiteful tone that had crept into her voice.

“Please don’t go. You don’t understand—”

“You’re absolutely right,” Elizabeth snapped, her hands on her hips. She felt her control slipping away but she didn’t care. “I don’t understand why you can’t even agree to say a cordial hello to me in the hallways at school. I don’t understand why you treated me like a stranger in the receiving line tonight. And most of all, I don’t understand how you could play the Intermezzo for Anne de Bourgh and ruin one of my most beautiful memories.” She turned her back and stared into the darkness, determined not to let him see her cry.

He inhaled sharply and said in a hushed voice, “Elizabeth, does this mean—”

She whirled to face him. “Yes, it means I lied. I hated that you played the Intermezzo. That night at your house was one of the loveliest evenings I’ve ever spent. I couldn’t bear to hear you playing that piece for another woman, to see proof that the evening didn’t mean to you what it meant to me.”

“Elizabeth—” William took a sudden step toward her, a peculiar light in his eyes, but she backed away, out of reach.

“Don’t worry,” she continued, her voice tinged with bitterness. “I won’t call you or bother you, or even say hello when I see you. Unlike Caroline Bingley, I can take a hint. I caught on pretty quickly after you ignored my phone messages back in June. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to the house and find Jane. It’s time for us to go home, where we belong.”

She tried to brush past William, furious with herself for allowing tears to spill from her eyes, but he grabbed her arm and stopped her. “What do you mean, I ignored your phone messages?” he asked.

“You know perfectly well what I mean,” she said, pulling her arm out of his grasp and trying to walk around him.

He stepped sideways, blocking her path. “No, I don’t. Please tell me.”

“Don’t play games with me. I know you couldn’t call me back at first because you were in the hospital. But afterwards, you still didn’t call. And you had my number in San Francisco, so don’t say you didn’t know how to reach me. You just didn’t want to talk to me. So, fine, let’s not talk. If you’ll just get out of my way so I can go back to the house, we can start not talking right away.”

“I can’t let you go,” he said, staring at her with a bewildered frown. “Not until you explain about the phone messages.”

“The least you could have done was to call me just to let me know how you were doing. I was so worried about you.”

He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. “Elizabeth, I’m confused. You were the one who didn’t call me.”

“That’s ridiculous. I called your cell phone twice. Actually three times, but the third time I didn’t leave a message.”

“When did you call?”

“The first time was the morning after we … you … the morning after my party. And then I called again later that afternoon. You don’t expect me to believe that the messages just vanished in a cloud of smoke, do you?”

William took a step toward her and grasped her shoulders, looking directly into her eyes. She started to pull away, but the intensity of his expression froze her in place. He spoke emphatically but quietly. “I swear to you, Elizabeth, I didn’t get any messages from you. I never heard a word from you after that night.”

She heard the sincerity in his voice, and saw it in his earnest gaze. Improbable as it seemed, he was telling the truth. “I don’t understand.”

William’s grip on her shoulders grew gentler. “Neither do I, but I swear it’s true. I wanted so badly to hear from you.”

“Then why didn’t you call me after I left you the note at the hospital?”

His eyes widened. “You left me a note?”

“Yes, of course, the day I came to visit. I set it right next to the orchid.” She saw the distress and confusion in William’s eyes, and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. “You didn’t get the note?”

The sadness on his face hardened into cold rage. He released his hold on her and stepped away. “That conniving bitch.” he spat out.

“Who are you talking about?”

“I’m sorry. Forgive my language,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “But I’d like to kill her.”

“Who?”

“Caroline Bingley.”

“Why? What did she do?”

“The orchid you left me? She claimed it was from her.”

“She took credit for my orchid?”

“She tried to. And she must have stolen your note too.”

Much as she disliked Caroline, Elizabeth would never have expected that she would be willing to sink this low in her pursuit of William. “Okay, then. You never got my note because of that … that … I can’t even think of the right word for her. But you still knew that I’d been to the hospital to see you. And that should have told you that I wasn’t angry with you anymore. So why didn’t you call?”

He shook his head slowly. “I only found out about your visit to the hospital the day before yesterday.”

Painful knots were forming in her stomach. “But Allen saw me. And the nurse promised that she’d tell you I’d been there.”

“Allen believes in minding his own business, and, besides, he assumed that I’d seen you. And the nurse only said that my … that a woman had visited me. I thought she meant Caroline.”

“So, as far as you knew, I never contacted you again after that night?”

“I thought you hated me. That you couldn’t forgive me.”

She shook her head. “I couldn’t hate you, no matter how hard I tried. By the next morning I felt terrible about what I’d said. But then when you didn’t call me back …”

William closed his eyes and stood immobile for several seconds, his white shirt seeming to glow in the dim light. When at last he opened his eyes, they glittered with unshed tears. “What did you say?” he asked. “In your phone messages. Please, I need to know.”

“I don’t remember exactly, but I told you I wanted to apologize, and we needed to talk. And I said that maybe it was a good idea for you to come over that evening after all.”

“Oh, my God.” He paused and swallowed hard. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. But you wouldn’t have been able to come. You were in the hospital by then.”

“But, still …” His voice trailed off and he shook his head, staring at the ground.

“So, you’re saying that you wanted me to call, and if you’d gotten the messages you would have called me back?”

He stepped closer to her and reached out slowly, smoothing a curl away from her cheek. “Oh, God, yes,” he whispered. “I don’t think there was anything I wanted more. When I was in the hospital, I kept asking for my cell phone. And then, when there weren’t any messages from you …”

His voice trailed off, and Elizabeth could no longer hold back her tears.

“I even dreamed that you came to visit me.” He brushed a teardrop from her cheek with his thumb.

The poignant sadness in his expression made her heart ache. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea—”

“Of course not,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. His hand dropped to his side. “How could you have known? You thought I was ignoring your calls because you hadn’t given me what I wanted.”

She shook her head. “I should have given you more credit. But you must have thought I was heartless, not to contact you when you were so sick.”

“No. I assumed that you didn’t know. Besides, you were angry with me. I found myself wishing you’d call and yell at me some more; at least we would have been communicating.”

Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. “And considering what I’d said to your face, I suppose it wasn’t hard to imagine me calling just to heap some more abuse on your head.”

A reluctant smile crept onto his face. “I wouldn’t have minded. Not much, anyway. ”

Silence fell between them as they regarded each other, their smiles slowly fading.

“Is it too late to make things right between us?” William asked.

“I hope not. But maybe it is for you. You said you didn’t want to be friends.”

“You misunderstood. And as is often the case when you get upset about something, you didn’t give me a chance to finish.” He quirked an eyebrow at her.

Elizabeth blushed. “Sorry. Bad habit of mine. You have my full attention now, and I promise not to interrupt.”

He took her hands in his. “What I meant,” he said, his voice a soft caress, “is that I don’t think I can be just friends with you. I want so much more than that, and I don’t think I’d be any good at pretending otherwise. But if friendship is all you want—”

“It isn’t.” She took a deep breath. “I want more, too.”

He squeezed her hand tightly, and an expression of utter delight warmed his features. As she gazed at him, she felt a lump forming in her throat.

“I’ve missed you,” she said quietly.

“Not half as much as I’ve missed you, Lizzy—I mean, Elizabeth.”

She laughed at the guilty look on his face. “It’s okay; you can call me Lizzy.”

“Are you sure?” he teased, reaching up to adjust his jacket around her shoulders when it threatened to slip. “That night, you were pretty insistent that only your friends could do that.”

“Well, that’s true,” she retorted with a mischievous grin. “And you did say that you didn’t want to be friends.”

“And you make a habit out of twisting everything I say.” William caressed her cheek, leaving her skin tingling in their wake.

“Okay, I take it back.” She stepped forward involuntarily. It was as though the warmth in his eyes was a silken cord slowly but inexorably pulling her toward him.

“Lizzy,” he murmured in his soft, deep voice. He wore the sweet, boyish smile that never failed to melt her heart, and she was compelled to step forward again, until their bodies touched lightly.

“Lizzy,” he said again, this time barely above a whisper. The sound seemed to vibrate through her body, and her breathing became shallow.

His gaze dropped to her lips, and when his eyes met hers again, they held a question. She was confused by his hesitation until she realized that he was allowing her to take the lead. She slid her hands up his chest to his shoulders and then wove her fingers into the thick hair at his nape. Exerting gentle pressure on his neck, she coaxed his head down to hers until their lips met in a soft, lingering kiss.

He slid his arms around her waist, beneath his jacket. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed you.”

She tightened her arms around his neck, and his jacket slipped off her shoulders. She looked at it where it lay in an undignified heap at her feet, but he tightened his hold on her when she reached down to rescue it.

“Leave it,” he whispered, his lips brushing her forehead. “I couldn’t let go of you right now if I tried.”

His head dipped and his mouth covered hers hungrily. Elizabeth’s arms went around his neck again, and she surrendered to the sweet ecstasy of his kiss.

 

Several minutes later, Elizabeth and William were making their way slowly up the hill to the house, hand in hand. He had retrieved his jacket and placed it back around her shoulders, pronouncing it unharmed by its fall to the ground. He chuckled, wondering if she understood how significant it was for him to have disregarded the welfare of his wardrobe, even momentarily, for her sake.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

Her affectionate smile made his heart skip a beat. “Nothing. You make me happy.”

“I’m glad,” she answered, squeezing his hand.

William looked around the shadowy lawn, searching for a secluded spot to which they could detour. Returning to the party was low on his list of priorities. He wished that instead they could spend the rest of the evening exploring the grounds, stopping occasionally so that he could gather her into his arms and taste her soft lips.

He noted a path that led into a grove of trees and, with a smile of anticipation, tried to guide her in that direction. She looked at him, one eyebrow raised in an unspoken question.

“I’m not ready to go back to the house,” he explained. “Let’s stay out here a little longer.”

“You know we can’t do that. Catherine isn’t used to having her guest of honor vanish. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s organized a search party by now.”

As if on cue, a tuxedo-clad figure rushed towards them. “Mr. Darcy? Mr. Darcy? Is that you?”

Elizabeth withdrew her hand from William’s grasp and took a step away from him. He rolled his eyes as Bill Collins, red-faced and puffing, bore down on them.

“Thank heaven I’ve found you, Mr. Darcy! Dr. de Bourgh is beside herself! She’s had me looking everywhere for you! You must return to the house at once!” Bill gesticulated wildly in the direction of the house, nearly jumping up and down in his agitation.

William stood his ground. “Elizabeth and I are getting a bit of fresh air. Why don’t you go back inside and tell Catherine I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Bill, we didn’t mean to upset Dr. de Bourgh,” Elizabeth said. “And I didn’t mean to monopolize William. I needed some fresh air; it was so stuffy in the house. And he was being a gentleman and escorting me.”

“I would have been happy to take you on a walk so that Mr. Darcy could have seen to his duties as guest of honor,” Bill said. William’s jaw clenched, both at Bill’s insolent words and at the warm look in his eyes as they rested on Elizabeth.

“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” she replied quickly, before William could construct a suitably haughty retort. “Let’s all go back to the house so Dr. de Bourgh can stop worrying.”

William knew she was right, but he didn’t have to like it. He and Elizabeth trailed behind Bill, who continually exhorted them to hurry. Elizabeth slipped the tuxedo jacket off her shoulders and handed it to William, taking the opportunity to brush his arm gently, her warm smile proving that the contact was no accident.

“It must be getting late,” she said. “I should probably find Jane and see if she’s ready to go home.”

“Don’t leave the party yet,” he replied, as Bill trotted ahead of them along the path. “Stay, and let me drive you home.”

“But Jane and I drove here together.”

“Please?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Wow. William Darcy saying please. Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

They passed through the door from the terrace into the ballroom, accompanied by a preening Bill Collins. “Dr. de Bourgh?” he called out in triumph, “I found him!”

William noted the disapproving scowl on Catherine’s face. The rest of the evening would be unpleasant. But he didn’t care. Elizabeth was back in his life, and that was worth far greater sacrifices than suffering the wrath of Catherine de Bourgh.

 

An hour later, William decided that he had done enough penance for his disappearance. He had stood by Catherine’s side since his return to the house, occasionally adding a remark while she pontificated nonstop to her more prominent guests. He had earned the right to spend the rest of the evening with Elizabeth. Better yet, the crowd was thinning; soon it would be possible to leave.

Elizabeth had left the ballroom almost immediately after their return to the house, and he hadn’t seen her since. She had probably gone in search of Jane. He had noted with satisfaction that Bill Collins had spent most of his time in the ballroom, circling Anne and Catherine like an anxious puppy, and thus had been nowhere near Elizabeth.

Albert Beaumont, the celebrated conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was embarking on what promised to be a lengthy story about a concert tour of Asia. William quickly excused himself from the group, ignoring Catherine’s sharp stare. He exited the ballroom, searching the main hall for Elizabeth, but instead he noticed Charles standing in a corner.

Charles’s eyes lit up when he saw William, and they approached each other. “All alone, Charles?”

“Caroline and Elena went to the ladies’ room. I’m enjoying a quiet moment.”

“Too much chatter this evening?”

Charles snorted. “Elena really hasn’t said much, but Caroline has been talking nonstop. About you, mostly. From what she’s been telling Elena, she has big plans for you now that you’re in San Francisco.”

“She can make all the plans she wants,” William said, shrugging. “It has nothing to do with me.”

“Caroline thinks you’ve got a thing for Elizabeth Bennet.”

William stuck his hands in his pockets and willed his voice to sound calm. “We’re … friends.” He wasn’t prepared to discuss Elizabeth with anyone. A flush crept up his neck as he noted Charles’s curious expression. He was saved, ironically, by Caroline’s return from the ladies’ room.

“William! Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She swiveled over to him, thrust out her newly-prominent chest, and threaded her arm through his.

His lips pressed tightly together, he extracted his arm from her grip and stepped away. He glanced at Charles and intercepted his friend’s apologetic look.

“So, ladies,” Charles said in a tone of false jocularity, “what do you say? Is it time for us to head back to the city?”

Elena nodded. “It’s late, and I have a headache.”

“No, no, it’s much too early,” Caroline said. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to leave poor William here all alone.”

“But you rode over with us,” Charles said, “and we’re leaving.”

“I’m sure I can find someone to take me home.” She looked up at William through her eyelashes, her bright red lips turning up in a seductive smile.

William ignored her overt hint and turned to Charles and Elena. “Will you be in town the rest of the weekend?”

“I’m staying,” Charles said, “but Elena has to fly home early tomorrow. Want to get together tomorrow afternoon and road test your new Ferrari? I can’t wait to see it.”

“A Ferrari?” Caroline s breathless. “Oh, my.”

William hesitated. He fully intended to spend the day with Elizabeth, but Charles had looked miserable for much of the evening. “I need to check on something first. How about if I call you tomorrow morning, and we’ll pick a time to meet?”

“Sure, no problem. It’s great to see you, Will. You’re looking a lot better than you did when I visited back in July.”

The two men shook hands, and then Charles turned to Caroline. “Last chance. You coming with us?”

Caroline took a step towards William. “No, I’m not.”

“Suit yourself.” Charles looked at Elena and said, “Let’s go.”

Caroline wasted no time once they were gone. “Alone at last,” she sighed. “William, darling, it’s going to be so wonderful to have you here in San Francisco with me.”

“I am not here with you, Caroline,” William replied coldly. “We are temporarily living in the same city, that’s all. And I asked you not to call me ‘darling.’”

“Oh, all right,” she sighed. “Lucky for you, you’re sexy when you’re grumpy. Now, let’s talk about how we’re going to spend the rest of the weekend.”

“I don’t know how you’re spending the weekend, Caroline, and frankly I don’t care. I have plans.”

“Well, that’s all right. We’ll have lots of chances to see each other this fall. And you can drive me home tonight, can’t you? I’m stranded here without a ride now that Charles is gone, and besides, I’d just love to see your Ferrari. Italian cars are so sexy.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s impossible,” he answered coldly. “The car only seats two, and I’m already giving someone else a ride. But I’m sure you can call a cab. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

He turned and stalked away, shaking his head. He expected her to try to follow him. Indeed, she called his name, and he heard her heels clicking on the polished wood floor. When he reached the drawing room doorway, he looked back and saw with great relief that she had been stopped by another guest. This wasn’t the appropriate place to confront her about the orchid and Elizabeth’s note, and there was nothing else he wanted to say to her.

The drawing room was sparsely occupied; most of the guests were either in the ballroom or had already departed. His eyes warmed when he saw Elizabeth standing in a corner, part of a group in the midst of an animated conversation. He headed in their direction, basking in the pleasure of the smile that wreathed her face when she saw him approaching.

As he joined the group and Elizabeth re-introduced him to several faculty members he had met, and promptly forgotten, in the receiving line, it occurred to him that he owed Catherine de Bourgh a huge debt for suggesting that he come to San Francisco. Some day I’ll have to tell her what a great service she did me.

 

“What’s taking that parking attendant so long?” William grumbled. “I hope they haven’t been out joyriding in that car.”

“Why would they do that?” Elizabeth asked. “Is it another fire-engine red Z3, like you had at the wedding?”

He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

She returned the smile, amused by his mischievous air, and stepped closer. Their arms brushed against each other, and he captured her hand in his.

Once Jane had heard Elizabeth’s brief explanation of the conversation by the pool, she had been happy to drive home alone. Jane had left just a few minutes ago, and soon Elizabeth would be alone with William. The family of butterflies residing in her stomach took wing at this thought. There were still issues to be resolved: some things she needed to tell him, and some things she didn’t understand. She didn’t want to get into all of that tonight. But I might have to, depending on what he’s expecting from me.

A silver Ferrari convertible, its top closed, pulled up beside them and the parking attendant got out. “Here you go, sir.”

Elizabeth gasped. “This is yours?”

“You like it?” William asked, with a smirk that almost made her laugh.

“I never thought I’d get to go for a ride in a Ferrari!”

“You’ll be going for a lot of rides in this car if I have anything to say about it,” he said, leading her to the passenger’s side and opening the door with a flourish.

“William! William!”

It was Caroline, hurrying in his direction, her voice high-pitched and grating.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice harsh.

“You simply must give me a ride home.”

“I told you earlier that you’d have to make other arrangements. I’m taking Elizabeth home.”

Caroline turned to Elizabeth. Her expression might have been described as a smile by a charitable observer, but in truth it was much closer to a sneer.

“You wouldn’t mind getting a ride with someone else, would you, Elizabeth? You seemed quite cozy with that man who wears his hair in a ponytail. He was one of the waiters, wasn’t he?”

“That’s Bill Collins, associate dean of the conservatory,” Elizabeth answered in a cool tone. “You might remember him from Jane and Charles’s rehearsal dinner.”

“Oh, that’s right! Now that you mention it, you and he spent quite a bit of time together that night. As I recall, he accompanied you on that delightful solo you sang.”

“Caroline—” William began, but Elizabeth interrupted, touching his hand softly.

“You’re right, Caroline. I did spend a fair amount of time with Bill that night. I sat beside him at dinner, in the seat that was supposed to have been yours. Don’t you find it strange that our place cards got reversed, yet all the others were correct? It’s almost as if someone switched them intentionally.”

“You might be right. Perhaps Bill did it so that you and he wouldn’t be separated at dinner. How lucky you are to have such an … interesting boyfriend.”

Caroline’s smugness was apparently puncture-proof, but Elizabeth wasn’t ready to give up. “Bill and I are friends, but that’s all. Since you find him so intriguing, why don’t I introduce you? I’m sure he’d be thrilled to give you a ride back to the city, and you could get better acquainted on the drive.”

“That’s an excellent idea,” William said. “But perhaps someone else could make the introductions. We’re leaving now.”

“Oh, how sweet,” Caroline gushed, giving Elizabeth a patronizing smile. “I suppose this will be your first ride in a Ferrari?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Elizabeth said, both annoyed and amused by Caroline’s attempts to ruffle her composure.

“I thought so. It’s so generous of William to take the time to broaden your horizons.”

“Yes, isn’t it,” Elizabeth answered in a sarcastic tone, wishing she had a gigantic fly swatter handy, or, better yet, a huge can of Raid. “He’s generous with the less fortunate.” She flicked an amused glance in William’s direction, but saw from his tightly-compressed lips and the dark expression in his eyes that he saw no humor in the situation.

“But, as you’ll learn, a car like that has disadvantages—for you, I mean,” Caroline murmured in a silky tone.

“Such as?”

“It doesn’t have a back seat.” The remark was ambiguous enough on the surface, but Caroline’s insolent expression and her supercilious tone made her implication clear.

Elizabeth felt rage welling up inside her. Her eyes shot a flurry of invisible poisoned darts at Caroline. It took her a moment to compose a reply, but before she succeeded, William drew himself up to his full height and turned on Caroline.

“Enough!” he bellowed, his eyes intense with fury. “You will not speak to Elizabeth that way.”

Elizabeth saw a flash of anger on Caroline’s face, but it disappeared as quickly as it had materialized. “William, dear, I don’t know what you’re getting so overwrought about. I’m sorry if my little joke offended anyone; of course I was just teasing. Now, let’s all kiss and make up and be friends again.”

“Caroline, we have never been friends, and we never will be. You are manipulative and dishonest, and those are qualities I don’t want in my friends.”

“Well, I admit, I can be a bit … focused on what I want at times, but manipulative? Dishonest? Those are such harsh words.”

“Harsh, perhaps, but true. We know what you did in New York,” William said.

“I’ve done many things in New York. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Don’t bother trying to play innocent. It won’t work. Elizabeth brought an orchid to the hospital while I was asleep, and you lied and said it was from you.”

“I never said that. You must have heard me wrong. After all, you were taking lots of medication; you were barely conscious.”

“I remember perfectly well what you told me. It’s too late to rewrite history.”

“And you took the note I left with the orchid,” Elizabeth added.

Caroline bristled. “I did no such thing. I never saw any note; it must have fallen on the floor, if you left one at all. How dare you fling accusations at me, you—”

“Stop it!” William snapped. “For once in your life, just tell the truth.”

A look of hauteur spread across Caroline’s face. “I have no plans to stand here and be your verbal punching bag, William Darcy,” she said, squaring her shoulders, which caused her chest to jut out. “Once you’ve calmed down, we’ll have a nice talk without so many people around. Good night.” She strode away with regal carriage, her head held high.

William turned to Elizabeth. “I’m sorry, Lizzy.”

The deep concern in his eyes helped to calm her churning stomach. “It’s not your fault.”

“I think it is. If I hadn’t tolerated her behavior for so long, she wouldn’t act this way.”

“Nonsense. You’ve done your best to be polite to your best friend’s sister. And even as blunt as you were just now, she still refused to listen. I don’t think anything you said or did would matter. She’ll hear what she wants to hear and that’s all.”

He sighed. “I’ve met plenty of aggressive women, but never one as hard to discourage as Caroline.”

“So I should expect to spend a lot of time standing around watching women try to fling themselves into your arms?”

William smiled ruefully. “It’s not that bad, although …”

Elizabeth pursed her lips, trying not to smile at the hint of smugness in his air. I’m going to have to keep an eye on that ego of his. “Anyway, I vote that we forget about Caroline. Let’s not give her the satisfaction of spoiling our evening..”

 

Fifteen minutes later, William’s Ferrari was zipping down Highway 101, heading for the Golden Gate Bridge. Neither William nor Elizabeth had said much since leaving Rosings. Elizabeth was far too busy collecting her thoughts to carry on a conversation at the same time.

“Lizzy? Are you awake?”

His voice broke into her reverie, and she started slightly. “Yes. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

Elizabeth wasn’t ready to open a difficult subject, so she cast about for another topic. “For one thing, I was thinking about this car. It’s fantastic.”

“I’ve wanted one of these for a long time.”

“Before I met you, I’d never have guessed that you had a secret passion for sports cars. You seemed so serious, so dedicated to your career.”

“I’m entitled to a quirk or two, aren’t I?”

“Oh, absolutely. I’m not complaining.”

He paused. “You said the car was one thing you were thinking about. What else?”

“Well …” She sighed. “We have some things we need to talk about.”

“I know. Would you like to go somewhere for a glass of wine? It’s getting late, but some places will still be open.”

“Too bad we’re not in New York. Remember La Lanterna, that little café in the Village? They stay open late.”

“Of course I remember it. I went there from time to time over the summer.”

“You did?”

“In fact, I became something of a regular.” He chuckled, a deep, throaty sound that brought a smile to her face.

“Why did you go all the way down there? There are nice places a lot closer to your house.”

“But I hadn’t visited any of those places with ‘a certain lady of my acquaintance.’”

She felt her cheeks grow warm, but at least in the dark he couldn’t see her blush.

“I know where we could go,” he said. “What about the Redwood Room? I think they’re open late.”

The Redwood Room, located in the Clift Hotel, was one of San Francisco’s swankiest bars, not at all the sort of place Elizabeth would have thought of. “I’ve never been there, but the hotel has been in the news lately. They just finished renovations, and they had a glitzy re-opening party a few weeks ago.”

William nodded. “Charles was talking about it tonight, and I’ve read about the renovations. I understand the bar is crowded a lot of the time, but with us getting there so late, it might be quieter.”

“I hope so, or we’ll probably never get a table.” She had heard stories suggesting that on the weekends the coveted tables were reserved strictly for the rich and famous.

“I don’t think that will be a problem.” He sounded mildly affronted.

Oops. Sometimes she forgot that William was among the rich and famous. But how could I forget that while seated in his Ferrari? Caroline was right about one thing. Nobody else I know could afford one of these.

The Golden Gate Bridge appeared and disappeared from view as the road wound its way toward the bay. “Isn’t the bridge an amazing sight?” she said quietly. “I love this stretch of the highway.”

“That reminds me. On the way over here I saw a sign for an overlook of some sort right by the bridge. I imagine the views back toward the city are spectacular. Would you mind if we stopped for a minute?”

“You must be talking about the vista point near the bridge. You can only get to it when you’re heading north. But the exit right before the bridge takes you up into the Marin headlands. There are beautiful views from up there.”

Following Elizabeth’s directions, William exited Highway 101 and followed a side road that led them up into the hills. A few minutes later, he stopped the car at a spot with a breathtaking view of both the bridge and the city.

Before Elizabeth could open her door, William was there, holding it open for her and helping her out of the car. They stepped forward, stopping just in front of a bench at the edge of the parking area. He held her hand tightly in his as they stood gazing at the view. It was windy and cool, and Elizabeth pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders.

“You’re cold, aren’t you?” he asked. “I’m sorry, this was a stupid idea.”

He turned back toward the car, but she stopped him. “No, let’s stay for a few minutes,” she said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Do you want my jacket? Or on second thought, I know a better way to keep you warm.” He drew her into his arms. “This way I can wrap the jacket around you while I’m still wearing it.”

She nestled close to him, her arms around his waist under the jacket, feeling a pang when she noticed again how thin he was.

His fingers brushed the back of her neck tenderly, making her shiver. She raised her head and looked up into his eyes. “Did I happen to mention how beautiful you look tonight?” he murmured.

“No, I don’t think you did.”

“An unforgivable omission. The moment I saw you in the receiving line, you took my breath away. You put every other woman at the party in the shade.”

“You’re sweet, but I saw the designer dresses and the diamonds. I’m just an ordinary girl, Cinderella in a store-bought dress.”

He shook his head. “You don’t need to wear diamonds in order to sparkle.”

Laughing softly, she nuzzled his neck just below his ear, inhaling his deliciously masculine scent. “I guess it would be pretty silly for me to argue the point. And by the way, you look very handsome. But I always find you irresistible in formal wear.”

“I’ll have to file that away for future reference,” he murmured.

Their mouths met in a series of warm, lingering kisses that grew gradually deeper until she felt a melting hunger building inside of her. Their kisses by the pool at Rosings had been intimate but gentle, and she had sensed that William had been restraining himself. Now, though, passion was escalating between them at an alarming rate. William tightened his arms around her, and the kiss seemed to explode with passion. Fear tightened her chest, and she abruptly broke off the kiss.

“We should probably get going if we want to stop at the Redwood Room,” she said, breathless and quaking.

He released her from his embrace, his eyes downcast. “I’m sorry.” His chest was rising and falling rapidly. “It’s just like the night at the apartment, isn’t it? I’m not usually like this, but being with you is different.”

She clutched her shawl around her to prevent the wind from blowing it off her shoulders. “Let’s continue this conversation in the car, where it’s warmer.”

Once back in the car, he was silent, and she realized that he was waiting for her to begin. As often as she had mentally rehearsed this speech, she still wasn’t sure what to say. “About that night in my apartment,” she began in a halting tone. “I know I overreacted. You were moving too fast, but there was no need for me to throw a fit. But I was scared.”

“Of what? Did you think I was going to overpower you, to force you to do something you weren’t ready for?”

She could tell from the plaintive tone in his voice that he was hurt that she might think him capable of that. She smoothed his hair, which had been tousled by the wind. “No, it wasn’t about you. It was … something that happened a long time ago, but I was reminded of it.”

He captured her hand in his. “Do you want to tell me about it?” he asked in a low voice.

Elizabeth took a slow breath and thought for a minute. “I don’t think so.” She saw that he was disappointed, but it was too soon to share her deepest secrets. “I’ll just say that not every man I’ve ever known has been a gentleman.”

“I’m sorry. I hate the thought of anyone treating you badly.” He leaned across the transmission console between their seats and kissed her gently. “But I wish you’d tell me more, so I could avoid doing things that might scare you.”

“I’ve put the past behind me now, so it doesn’t matter. But …”

He took her hand again. “Go on.”

“The thing is, we still don’t know each other that well. We’ve been on, what, three dates? And we’ve seen each other at a few parties, and we’ve talked on the phone a handful of times.”

“And yet I feel like I know you very well.”

“But you don’t, so maybe you’re filling in the blanks with assumptions that aren’t true. And I might be doing the same thing.”

He pressed his lips together. “I don’t think so, but tell me what you think we should do.”

“Well, you’re here now, so we’ll be able to learn more about each other. And in the meantime, we need to slow down the … other side of things.”

“You mean our physical attraction.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes. Things have been kind of … sparking between us, and …”

“Sparking? More like a blow torch.”

Elizabeth giggled, and some of her nerves dissipated. “But I’m afraid if we rush into … that too soon, it’ll cause problems.”

“How much slowing down are you talking about?” There was a hint of impatience in his voice.

“What’s the problem?” she asked, her voice deceptively quiet. “You’re not willing to wait till the time is right?” She stared at him coldly, one eyebrow raised.

He exhaled loudly. “I’m not saying that. We’ll slow things down, if that’s what you need. I didn’t intend to sound upset.”

“But you are.”

“Not really. But for me, the time is already right. I wanted you that night in New York, and I want you even more now. I don’t feel the need to wait. I’d love to take you home right now and hold you all night long.”

Elizabeth swallowed hard, banishing that enticing image. “I understand. But I need time to get comfortable with you … with us.”

“I understand, and I’ll respect whatever limits you set. But being close to you overwhelms me, so sometimes you may need to remind me where the limits are.”

“Thank you for understanding, William. I know I’m asking a lot.”

“Not really. You’re just asking me not to behave like a hormone-crazed teenager.”

They laughed together, breaking the tension.

“I’m glad we talked about this,” she said. “I’ve spent most of my time since we met jumping to conclusions about what you were thinking and feeling, instead of just talking to you.”

“I’m really not a scary ogre, you know,” he teased, leaning forward to drop a kiss on the end of her nose. “But I’ve done some jumping to conclusions of my own.”

“A bad habit we share,” she remarked with a smile.

“By the way,” he murmured, stroking her cheek with his thumb while his fingers caressed her neck, “I hope kissing is still allowed.”

“Yes,” she said quietly, reaching up to finger the wayward curl that so often fell onto his forehead. “Kissing is definitely allowed.”

“Good.” His eyes radiated heat as he captured her lips in a slow, deep kiss full of barely restrained hunger that left Elizabeth trembling.

 

They arrived at the Redwood Room to find that it had just closed.

“Shall we try to find someplace else?” William asked.

Elizabeth didn’t want the evening to end, but it was after 2:00 am, and she had been up since early that morning. “Maybe we’d better just call it a night.”

“Not until you agree to have dinner with me tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

“Don’t tell me that you have a date.”

Usually she disliked jealousy in a man, but she was finding his jealous streak unusually attractive. “Not unless you consider a girls’ night out a date. I’m having dinner with Char and Jane.”

“Couldn’t you cancel?”

He sounded imperious, and she felt a wave of annoyance. Relax. He’s just accustomed to getting his own way. “I don’t think it’s right to cancel on people just because a better offer comes along.”

“Well, at least you consider me ‘a better offer,’” he said, sounding slightly mollified.

“And that’s saying a lot, because I love spending time with Jane and Char. But I have a counter-proposal.”

“Okay, let’s hear it.”

“Are you free during the day tomorrow?”

He hesitated, and at first she thought he was going to refuse her, but then he nodded. “What did you have in mind?’

“How about if I show you around the city? Not everybody gets a grand tour from a native.”

“A day with you as my tour guide? How can I refuse? What time should I pick you up?”

“How early are you willing to getting started?”

“The earlier, the better.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Really? I thought you weren’t a morning person.”

“I’m not. But with the right inducement, I can get up with the sunrise.”

She smiled, charmed by his boyish enthusiasm but doubting his follow-through. “How about 10:00?” she suggested.

“Much too late. How about 8:00?”

“William Darcy, you’re not going to get home till almost 3:00 in the morning. You need your rest. Aren’t you supposed to be here recuperating?”

He rolled his eyes, sighing. “You sound just like Mrs. Reynolds.”

“I bet. Has she been fussing over you non-stop?”

He nodded. “You can’t begin to imagine. Not just her, either; everybody in the house got into the act.”

“Is that why you came out here? Too much adult supervision at home?”

He chuckled. “Good way to put it. That was part of it.”

“And the other reasons?”

“I think you know the answer to that.” He stopped the car at a stop sign and turned to look at her, the warmth in his eyes obvious even in the dim light. A car horn behind them broke the spell. With a sheepish grin, he turned his attention back to his driving.

All too soon, they were driving up the hill to her condo building. “This looks familiar,” he remarked as he pulled into a parking space in front of the building.

“Did you ever see Vertigo, the Hitchcock movie with Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart?”

“I think so.”

“Our building was used in that movie.”

He helped her out of the car and wrapped his arm around her waist as they walked toward the building. “We never decided on a time for tomorrow. I’m still voting for 8:00.”

Elizabeth unlocked the door to the building and they entered the lobby. “Let’s compromise. How about 9:00?”

“8:00. I’m not good at compromising.”

“What a shock. You know, it’s a skill you should probably develop if we’re going to spend time together.”

“All right,” he grumbled as they stepped onto the elevator. “9:00.”

“Good boy,” she said with an indulgent smile.

The elevator opened, and they walked down the hall in silence. She stopped in front of her door. “Well, here we are.”

He frowned. “I’m not ready for this evening to end.”

“But it’s so late, and I’m exhausted. You must be too. I really need to get at least a few hours of sleep. And we’re going to see each other again in just a few hours.”

William drew Elizabeth into his arms. “That’s the only reason I’m willing to say good night.” He bent his head to kiss her, but she placed a hand on his chest and pushed gently to stop him.

“Before we say good night, there’s something I have to ask, or I’m going to lie awake for hours worrying about it.”

“Go ahead.”

“Why did you play the Intermezzo for Anne de Bourgh?”

He shook his head slowly. “Lizzy, I played the Intermezzo for you. Didn’t you see the way I looked at you before I started to play?”

“I did, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. Besides, tonight I heard that you and Anne have … an understanding, I suppose you’d call it. And then Catherine said you were playing for Anne.”

He shook his head emphatically. “Wishful thinking on Catherine’s part. My ‘understanding’ with Anne exists only in Catherine’s mind.”

“What about Anne’s mind?”

“We’re friends. If she feels anything more than that, she doesn’t show it. Anne is … it’s hard to explain. We’ve known each other since we were kids. I’m fond of her, but that’s it. She just isn’t my type.”

“I suppose your type is more along the lines of Caroline Bingley?” she teased.

“Hardly.” He drew one hand up from her shoulder and along her neck in a lingering caress that made her shiver. “I seem to have a weakness for brunettes with gorgeous green eyes and a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“Sounds like a good way to get seriously injured,” she joked weakly. His intense gaze was devastating to her composure. She placed her hands on his chest to steady herself, feeling the steady thudding of his heart.

“Yes, I’ve become quite a glutton for punishment,” he drawled, his eyes half-lidded as he gazed down at her.

He cupped her face in his hands. Her eyes drifted shut as he lowered his head, scattering gentle kisses on her forehead, eyelids, and cheeks. “So, have we dispensed with Anne de Bourgh?” he murmured, his lips descending toward hers.

She nodded dreamily.

“Good,” he whispered. “Because that’s not what I want you thinking about after I leave here tonight. I was hoping you’d spend the night thinking about … something else.”

As their mouths joined in a deep, sultry kiss, Elizabeth slid her arms around his neck, and a small sound between a sigh and a moan issued from her throat. There was absolutely no doubt what she’d be thinking about later that night.