“Oops, sorry!”

“No problem; it didn’t get on my dress,” Elizabeth replied.

She grabbed a napkin from the bar and dabbed the splashes of sangria off her forearm, the result of a collision with a wildly gesticulating woman who had evidently been drinking for some time. Elizabeth continued to inch her way through the throng, finally reaching the far end of the bar where Charlotte and Jane awaited her.

“Sorry I’m late,” she shouted, to be heard above the crowd. She had arrived home from her date to find a note from Jane suggesting that they meet at the restaurant. Jane hated to be late and hadn’t wanted to keep Charlotte waiting, but considering the suggestive looks Charlotte was exchanging with the bartender, she could probably have amused herself for as long as necessary.

“You’ve got some catching up to do.” Charlotte poured a glass of sangria and pressed it into Elizabeth’s hand.

“I assume you already put our name in for a table?”

“As soon as I got here. It’s going to be another twenty minutes at least, maybe more.”

Waiting for a table was part of the experience at Cha Cha Cha, a popular Caribbean-themed bistro in Haight-Ashbury. Patrons crammed the bar, waiting an hour or more for a table while downing pitchers of sangria and bemoaning the restaurant’s no-reservations policy. It was one of Charlotte’s favorite eateries in the city and was within walking distance of Jane and Elizabeth’s building, though the walk home rivaled the climb up Telegraph Hill.

Elizabeth ordinarily enjoyed Cha Cha Cha’s party atmosphere, but tonight she wished they had chosen someplace quieter. Her day with William had given her a great deal to think about, and introspection was impossible in the midst of the raucous crowd. Further, she had begun to regret refusing William’s dinner invitation. A quiet corner table bathed in candlelight, a good bottle of wine, and William … and I said no to that?

But dinner with Jane and Charlotte would be plenty of fun too, and William was having dinner with Charles.

“How is Roger?” she asked. She had intended to call him before leaving for the restaurant, but there hadn’t been enough time.

“He’s fine,” Charlotte answered. “It must have been something he ate, because he was miserable for a few hours last night, but then he started improving.”

Their conversation was interrupted when they were jostled by a group of people trying to find a corner in which to congregate. After the confusion was sorted out, Jane turned to Elizabeth. “You look beautiful tonight, Lizzy.”

Knowing that the wait for a table would be a long one, Elizabeth had taken the extra time to wash her hair before leaving for the restaurant. Her hair now fell in a cascade of curls around her shoulders. She wasn’t sure what impulse had motivated her to put extra effort into her appearance tonight, but she had been pleased with the results.

“Jane’s right. The two of us might as well have paper bags over our heads, because every guy in this place is looking at you. You’re practically glowing. So your date with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Shaggable went well?”

Elizabeth ignored Charlotte’s newly-coined name for William. “We had a really nice time.”

“I’m so glad.” Jane’s soft voice was barely audible above the din.

“But let’s back up,” Charlotte said, her eyes bright with anticipation. “I want to hear about last night. Jane said you and William worked out your differences at the party, but I understand you didn’t get home till almost three.”

Elizabeth directed an inquiring glance in Jane’s direction.

“I was still awake, and I heard you come in,” Jane explained.

“And since it doesn’t take that long to drive back from Marin County, I’m guessing there could be an interesting story here. What, or should I say who, were you doing that late at night?” Charlotte asked, her eyes gleaming.

“It wasn’t like that,” Elizabeth said, hating that she sounded so defensive. “We were late leaving Rosings, and he wanted to stop somewhere for a drink, but everything was closed.”

“You’re holding out on us. Look at her, Janeshe’s blushing!”

Elizabeth intended to mention neither the romantic interlude on the Marin Headlands nor the conversation about their physical relationship. She wanted Jane’s advice on the subject, but she already knew what Charlotte would say. Besides, this wasn’t the best atmosphere for a serious conversation.

“You should see his new car. If you thought the Z3 was hot …” Elizabeth said, deftly tossing out the conversational equivalent of a raw steak to a hungry jungle cat. The jungle cat in question was leaning against the bar with offhand grace, clad in an off-the-shoulder black top, slender black trousers, a fabulous pair of hammered gold earrings, and a matching necklace. Elizabeth had always envied Charlotte’s effortless style and her lithe five-foot eleven-inch frame, which could carry off any clothing ever made.

Charlotte devoured the bait, as Elizabeth had expected. “He’s got something better than the Z3?”

“Way better. He bought a Ferrari convertible.”

Charlotte gasped. “Be still, my heart.”

“I bet you just about died when you saw it!” Jane’s eyes were lit with a mischievous sparkle as she continued. “So, I assume you’ve already asked him if you can take it for a test drive?”

Elizabeth set her empty glass on the end of the bar. “Sort of. He didn’t exactly say yes, but he also didn’t say no.”

Charlotte groaned, shaking her head. “William Darcy in a Ferrari. I think that’s hotter than the law allows. Men like that shouldn’t be allowed to walk around unsupervised; it could be dangerous.”

“But you’ve got Roger, and he’s pretty hot himself,” Elizabeth said. “You two have been spending so much time together lately, I wondered if love was starting to bloom.”

“In the immortal words of Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it? Sure, I like him, but we’re just having some fun. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s seeing somebody else.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?” Jane asked.

Charlotte shrugged. “Why should it? You know me; I’m not looking for romance. Too bad William isn’t available. I bet he’d have an impressive supply of energy; he’s got to be mighty frustrated from dealing with our little singing nun here.”

“Cut it out, Char,” Elizabeth said in a sharp tone.

Jane frowned at Charlotte, shaking her head in disapproval. Her voice was gentle but firm when she spoke. “Char, you’re getting carried away. I know you meant it as a joke, but you’re embarrassing Lizzy.”

“I’m sorry, Liz,” Charlotte said, her expression remorseful. “That was rude and crude and I shouldn’t have said it. Too much sangria and my mouth stops taking orders from my brain.”

“Yeah, I know. I learned a long time ago not to listen to a word you say, especially not when you’re in a party mood.”

“Smart girl. I mean, you’re like my sister. Hell, I’m a lot closer to the two of you than I am to my real sister. And of course that means William Darcy is off limits, because he’s yours.”

“He’s not mine.” But Elizabeth felt a tiny thrill go through her.

“Oh, I think he is,” Jane said, her eyes glowing. “You didn’t see the look on his face when he was done playing his solo last night. It was so obvious that he’d seen you leave, and he couldn’t wait to go after you. In fact, I’m afraid he may have offended some of the party guests. He just walked away from a group of them in mid-conversation and came over to ask me if I knew where you’d gone.”

Charlotte nodded. “Based on what I saw that weekend in May, I doubt he’d notice me, or any other woman either, if we did the Dance of the Seven Veils for him and left six of the veils at home. He’s got it bad. And I think you’ve got it pretty bad too.”

“I don’t know. I wish I could figure it out.” Elizabeth brushed her hair away from her face.

“Well, let’s put our collective brain power to work on it,” Charlotte said. She raised her half-full glass. “Another pitcher of this stuff, and we can probably solve your problem, find a way to eliminate world hunger, and then … what? World peace? Shoes that are both stylish and comfortable?”

“Oh, c’mon,” Elizabeth retorted. “World hunger, sure, but you’re pushing it with the shoes.”

In sangria veritas,” Charlotte declared. She and Elizabeth clinked glasses.

“Not to change the subject, but I was wondering if William … no, never mind.” Jane smoothed her white tank dress self-consciously and sighed.

“Did William mention Charles? Is that what you were going to ask?” Elizabeth said, noting the sadness in Jane’s eyes.

Jane nodded.

“Yes, actually, he did. And that reminds me; Elena flew home this morning. So you don’t need to torture yourself, imagining the two of them having a romantic weekend at the Fairmont. Caroline was making that up, as usual.”

“I wasn’t torturing myself,” Jane protested. “I want Charles to be happy.”

Elizabeth reached out and squeezed her sister’s hand. Jane was brave and generous, but Elizabeth knew that she suffered a great deal more than she ever admitted. “William and Charles are having dinner tonight.”

“So we’re having a girls’ night out, and they’re having a guys’ night out,” Charlotte said. “I bet we’re having more fun. So, how about a toast? To three hot chicks, out on the town.”

 

While the “hot chicks” were toasting themselves at Cha Cha Cha, Charles and William were digging into newly-arrived plates of food at the Big Four Restaurant in the Huntington Hotel, just a block from William’s penthouse.

Despite his late lunch with Elizabeth, William’s stomach had been growling since entering the restaurant, and he eagerly sampled the rack of lamb, savoring its delicate flavor. The restaurant was decorated in dark wood paneling, lead-glass mirrors, and forest green upholstery. It looked like an exclusive men’s club, the sort of place fortunes were made—and lost—over brandy and cigars.

William took a sip of the Merlot Charles had selected. “Excellent choice,” he commented. “And you call me a wine snob! Obviously you know your California wines.”

Charles shrugged. “I guess so. Father insists on French wine, but when I first moved up here I dated a girl who loved going to Napa Valley on weekends. If you go up there often enough, you’re bound to end up learning something about wine.”

William grunted, taking another bite of the lamb. The two men fell into an awkward silence, not for the first time that evening. Charles was not his usual happy-go-lucky self, offering only perfunctory answers to William’s questions about life in Los Angeles. And any situation that requires me to be the chatty one is a ready-made disaster.

Besides, William couldn’t seem to focus on Charles and their dinner; instead, his mind continually summoned up reminders of his afternoon with Elizabeth, as though he were flipping through an album of sensory memories. He felt the pressure of her lips against his. A turn of the page, and he saw her green eyes sparkling with laughter when she teased him, and clouded with passion when she had lain beneath him on the blanket. Even the images of his problems on Telegraph Hill were softened by the echo of her sweet voice, gentle and full of compassion.

And she kissed me! William couldn’t help smiling as he congratulated himself for his wisdom and self-control. He had kept himself under stern regulation, resolving to follow her lead. In the heat of their embrace, his hands and lips had itched to wander, but he had allowed himself only a brief exploration of her neck before he had reluctantly released her.

Of course, how long I’ll be able to keep myself under control is another question entirely. Had they been alone in his living room instead of in the more public setting in the park, he was less certain of his success.

“What are you grinning about?” Charles asked, setting down his wine glass. “You’re looking mighty pleased with yourself this evening.”

“I had a good day,” William said, spearing a forkful of vegetables.

“You must have, considering the mood you’re in. What did you do?”

William hesitated. His initial impulse was to offer a vague answer, but Charles would probably figure it out on his own soon enough. Both Sonya and Mrs. Reynolds had warned him that where Elizabeth was concerned, his heart was on prominent display for all to see. He took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I spent the day with Elizabeth Bennet. She took me on a tour of the city.”

“Aha. So Caroline was right about the two of you,” Charles said with a grin. “And you said last night that you were just friends!”

“I said we were friends, and we are,” William said, instantly regretting his decision to open up.

“But not just friends, I take it. Did you two have something going on in New York? I never told you this, but when Caroline came back from her trip out there in June, she swore up and down that you and Elizabeth were sleeping together.” Charles raised his eyebrows and drained his wine glass.

“As usual, Caroline invented an alternate reality.” William dropped his fork onto his plate with a clatter that sent their waiter hurrying over to ascertain that nothing was wrong. “She has no business spreading lies about Elizabeth and me.”

“Sorry,” Charles said, wincing. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I know she was getting on your nerves last night, Will, and I’m sorry about that too.”

William shrugged. “It’s not your fault.” He briefly considered telling Charles about the nasty scene with Caroline after the party, and about her deceitful behavior in New York, but it seemed both pointless and unkind. Charles had no control over his sister’s behavior.

“I suppose you figured out that Caroline got her … enhancement done for your benefit. From what I heard her telling Louisa, she got the idea somewhere that you’re a connoisseur of cleavage.”

William barely stifled a snicker. Caroline wasn’t wrong, but the cleavage had to belong to the right woman for his interest to move beyond casual appreciation. “I hope she didn’t do it just for my sake, because in that case she went to a lot of trouble for nothing.”

“But enough about my sister. At the risk of sounding like I’m hosting one of those TV shows where they sit around and gossip for hours, is there something serious going on between you and Elizabeth?”

Exhibiting a flair for drama that he never knew he possessed, William proceeded in leisurely fashion to cut a piece of lamb, chew it slowly, and swallow it before he responded. “Define ‘serious.’”

Charles shook his head. “Who needs a sphinx when you’ve got William Darcy for a friend?”

“What do you want me to say? We’re seeing each other. I enjoy spending time with her.”

“Well, I’m happy for you. I didn’t get to know her that well, she seemed like a terrific girl. In fact …” Charles paused and glanced upward, his eyes twinkling. “I could swear that I recall trying to fix you up with her, but you weren’t having any of it.”

William’s eyes narrowed, but he was smiling. “Get it over with. Go ahead and say ‘I told you so.’ You’ll feel better.”

“No, that’s okay,” Charles said with a grin. “It’s enough that we both know that, for once in my life, I was right and you were wrong.”

William grinned but didn’t comment.

“Anyway,” Charles remarked after a short silence, “I’m glad one of us is having some luck with the opposite sex.”

“I thought you and Elena were doing well.”

“She’s Father’s idea of the perfect wife.”

“But not yours.”

“I hate to say it, but she bores me. No interest in sports of any kind; her eyes glazed over the first time I tried to explain why I love surfing. She doesn’t seem to care about much besides parties, clothes, and jewelry. I don’t mean to put her down, but we have almost nothing in common … except growing up with money, I guess. Still, when I need a date for a party or something, she’s usually avaialble.”

“Then you’re not seeing anybody? I mean, besides Elena?” William had hoped that by now Charles would have begun to move on from Jane.

“Can’t seem to find the right girl. Well, I found her, but I was stupid enough to let her go. I wish I’d known Jane was going to be there last night. I wasn’t prepared for that.”

“I know. When I saw her in the receiving line with Elizabeth, I was concerned.”

“Yeah.” Charles propped one elbow on the table and rested his chin on his fist, sighing loudly.

“Did you talk to her?”

“Just some small talk. She was polite, of course—Jane would never be rude to anyone—but she didn’t seem glad to see me. I guess you were right about her feelings. She sure got over me in a hurry.”

William’s conscience pricked at him, and he picked up his wine glass, stalling for time before he responded. His advice in May had been sound; however, with his newfound appreciation for the complexities of love, he wished he hadn’t been so forceful in expressing his opinions. “Charles, what I said was based on a few hours of observation. I could have misread her feelings. And last night she might have felt as awkward as you did.”

“I don’t know. A few minutes later I saw her talking and laughing with another guy, and they were having a wonderful time. Her face absolutely glows when she smiles. Wasn’t she the most beautiful woman at the party?”

“She looked lovely,” William said politely. He had barely noticed Jane; in his eyes, Elizabeth had outshone every other woman.

Neither seemed to know what to say after that, and they turned their attention to their respective dinners. Finally, Charles broke the silence.

“You know, I’ve dragged us down long enough with my bad mood,” he said. “We should be celebrating your arrival. It’s going to be nice to have you closer so we can get together more often. LA and San Francisco are just a short plane ride apart.”

“That reminds me. I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked you for coming to New York last month. It meant a lot.”

“No problem. You needed some cheering up, and I was glad I could help. It seems like you’re doing better now; what’s the latest?”

William gave Charles a sketchy update, omitting any mention of his problems that morning.

“Sounds like you’re back on track,” Charles said. “I know you’re frustrated with the time it’s taking, but maybe what you really need is a little TLC from Nurse Lizzy.”

William’s mouth was full, so he couldn’t reply, but he suspected that his agreement was written clearly on his face. Charles had hit on the perfect prescription.

 

“Okay, who wants the last shrimp?” Charlotte asked, licking her lips.

“Jane, I think it’s yours,” Elizabeth said. “But you’d better grab it quick before the Prawn Bandito can snatch it.”

Elizabeth, Jane, and Charlotte were seated in Cha Cha Cha’s dining room. They had ordered a variety of tapas to share, and dishes had been arriving at their table at regular intervals. They were currently finishing one of the restaurant’s most popular choices, Cajun shrimp. It was served with bread to allow diners to sop up the remains of the flavorful sauce.

Jane eyed the lone shrimp sitting in the small skillet. “Go ahead and take it, Char.”

“No, no,” Charlotte said, with an air of martyrdom. “Lizzy’s right; it’s yours. Go for it.”

“Why don’t we split it three ways?”

“Thanks,” Elizabeth said, “but I couldn’t eat another bite.”

“But I know you’d like half of it.” Jane smiled at Charlotte as she cut the shrimp into two pieces.

“Gee, what gave me away?” Charlotte asked with a snicker. “I know it couldn’t have been the saliva dribbling down my chin.”

While Jane and Charlotte savored the last shrimp, Elizabeth shared the tale of Bill Collins in bloodhound mode, huffing across the lawn at Rosings in pursuit of William. She finished the story with a spot-on imitation of Bill that caused Charlotte to choke on her sangria, and Jane to giggle in spite of herself.

“Jane said Cruella was at the party last night.” This was Charlotte’s nickname for Caroline Bingley.

“I wish you wouldn’t call her that,” Jane said, dunking a piece of bread into the Cajun shrimp sauce. “You and Lizzy just won’t give her a chance. She’s been very sweet to me.”

Elizabeth put her hand on Jane’s arm. “You won’t be singing her praises after you hear what she did.” She described her unpleasant encounter with Caroline, and then went on to explain the incident involving the orchid.

Charlotte’s lip curled in disgust. “She took credit for your orchid, and threw away the note? She’s even lower than I thought.”

“Well, she claims William misunderstood, and that the note must have fallen on the floor, but let’s be serious.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

“And there’s no chance this is all a misunderstanding?” Jane asked, frowning.

“No. She lied, and she conspired to keep William from finding out that I’d been to see him. And because of that, he spent two miserable months thinking that I hated him.”

“So you’re ready to admit that he was miserable because he was missing you?” Charlotte asked with a smug grin. “My, we have made progress, haven’t we?”

Elizabeth pursed her lips, casting about for a suitable retort, but Jane spoke first. “I hate the idea that Charles’s sister would do something so callous and dishonest, and hurt you and William that way. You’re absolutely sure there hasn’t been some mistake?”

“Open your eyes, Jane,” Charlotte said. “That woman is a cold-hearted, selfish bitch. I don’t know why she’s been nice to you, but I promise you, she’s got some twisted agenda.”

“I just …” Jane paused and shook her head. “It’s so hard for me to imagine, because it’s so different from the way she’s been with me.”

Charlotte leaned forward abruptly, nearly upsetting the glass of sangria at her elbow. “The difference is, the man she’s lusting after isn’t head over heels for you. If you were in her way, she’d cut you dead.”

Jane sighed. “It’s just so strange. I know you two think I delude myself about people, but I simply think it’s important to give them the benefit of the doubt, to avoid condemning them unfairly.”

“Well, now you know the truth,” Charlotte said. “Besides that despicable business with the orchid, don’t forget the nasty things she said to Liz, like that crack about back seats. As if Liz were a slut. It’s like calling Mother Teresa greedy.”

“She had no right to say that,” Jane retorted. “What did you say to her, Lizzy?”

“I never got the chance to say anything. William just started roaring at her. He was furious.”

“Isn’t he the brave knight,” Charlotte quipped. “Defending his lady fair from the evil monster.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I admit, it was a little like that. I could have handled her myself, but it was sweet of him to try to protect me.” Her smile faded as she turned to Jane. “Please promise me that you’re going to keep her at arm’s length. Char is right; she must be up to something where you’re concerned, and it can’t be good.”

“Of course, Lizzy. I’d never maintain a friendship with someone who’s treated you that way. I’ll still be cordial, naturally, but that’s all.”

“Good,” Elizabeth said. “She’s like a poisonous snake. She slithers around your ankles till she’s ready to bare her fangs.”

“Good analogy!” Charlotte’s eyes gleamed. “You’ve even got the body type right.”

Elizabeth let out a little hoot and grabbed Charlotte’s arm, laughter bubbling in her eyes. “Char, I almost forgot! She got a boob job! You should have seen her strutting around showing them off like prize melons at the state fair. All she needed was a ‘Best of Show’ ribbon pinned on her dress.”

“Damn, I wish I’d been there! But I can just see it. Her plastic surgeon ought to have tattooed his name on them. Sounds like he’d have gotten plenty of free publicity.”

Even Jane laughed at this remark. Charlotte refilled their glasses with sangria and then said, “I assume Cruella was shoving her new accessories under William’s nose at every opportunity?”

“You should have seen the look on his face when he noticed them!” Elizabeth burst into peals of laughter. “He looked like he’d just been catapulted into an alternate universe.”

“Like a new chapter in Gulliver’s Travels: The Land of Suddenly Large-Breasted Women.” Jane said with a giggle.

Elizabeth and Charlotte both turned to Jane in astonishment. Charlotte leaned down, reached into her purse, and made a great show of pulling out her Blackberry. “I have to make a note of this,” she said. She typed into the device, reading as she did so, “On this date, Jane Bennet said something almost catty.” Then she signaled the waiter. “I think this calls for another pitcher of sangria.”

“Only if you and Jane can finish it on your own,” Elizabeth said. “I had almost half a bottle of wine this afternoon, so I think I’ve hit my limit and then some.”

Charlotte dropped her Blackberry into her purse. “You were drinking wine this afternoon? So this was the Platinum City Tour, complete with champagne and caviar?”

“It wasn’t a big deal. We had a picnic lunch in Golden Gate Park, and William’s housekeeper included a bottle of wine in the picnic basket.”

Charlotte flashed an amused look at Jane. “His housekeeper. Don’t you love it? The junior member of our trio has bagged herself some serious big game.”

“But that stuff isn’t important to me.” Elizabeth had tried to explain the same thing to Sally in New York. “I mean, yes, he wears expensive clothes and lives in Nob Hill, and he’s got a hot car and a housekeeper who packs elegant picnic lunches. But … when I’m with him, he’s just William, and I really, really like being with him.”

“Charlotte was right earlier, wasn’t she?” Jane asked gently, smiling at Elizabeth. “You really care about him.”

“I guess I do.” Elizabeth swallowed hard, feeling a dizzying blend of exhilaration and terror. “I wish you could see what he’s like when it’s just the two of us. He’s more relaxed, not all solemn and forbidding like he usually is in public. He’s sweet and charming, and he’s funny, too. He loves to tease me, and he even seems to enjoy it when I tease him. We never run out of things to talk about, and even when we’re quiet, it’s a comfortable sort of quiet.”

“I’m so happy for you, Lizzy,” Jane said.

“But you left out the important part. When he kisses you, does he get you all hot and bothered?” Charlotte asked, raising her eyebrows.

“You have a one-track mind,” Elizabeth retorted.

“That’s true. Now answer the question.”

Elizabeth’s mouth twisted into a reluctant smile. “Yes, he does. A little too much so.”

“Excellent! You have my complete approval.” Charlotte pressed her napkin to her lips. “And, by the way, there is no such thing as getting too hot and bothered.”

Now that Elizabeth had started talking about William, she was finding it hard to stop. “I wish you could have seen him at Squat & Gobble this morning, studying the menu on the chalkboards. There was just something so adorable about—”

“You took him to Squat & Gobble?” Charlotte asked, her eyebrows arched in astonishment. “Good grief. You could have had eggs Benedict at the Ritz.”

“But she doesn’t care about eggs Benedict at the Ritz,” Jane said. “That’s what she’s been saying. It was the same with Charles and me. I mean, of course it was wonderful that his money made it possible for us to buy that lovely house in Pacific Heights, but the money wasn’t what made me love him.”

“Right,” Elizabeth said. “I’d enjoy being with William every bit as much if he were a struggling musician, like most of my friends in New York.”

“Well, okay.” Charlotte smirked. “But what’s wrong with hooking up with a charming hunk who also happens to be loaded?”

The waiter arrived with the sangria to find the three women laughing. Elizabeth raised her glass. “I guess I can handle a little more sangria, because it’s time for another toast. To Char: no matter what else you might say about her, you have to admit, she’s got quite a way with words.”

 

Charles and William had finished dinner and were strolling down California Street towards Charles’s hotel. William had tried to beg off after dinner and return home; his largely sleepless night, combined with his busy day and some lingering jet lag, had begun to catch up with him in spite of his nap in the park. But Charles had looked so disappointed at this abrupt end to the evening that William had relented, agreeing on a quick after-dinner drink.

“Excellent!” Charles had said. “And I know just the place. You’ve probably never been there, and it’s an experience you can’t miss.”

The bar Charles had in mind was in the Fairmont hotel, a San Francisco bastion of somewhat stodgy elegance. William was relieved; any bar at the Fairmont would be exclusive, comfortable and, above all, peaceful. Sipping brandy while ensconced in an overstuffed leather armchair, perhaps with jazz music in the background, would be a pleasant way to wind down before heading home to bed.

They passed through the hotel entrance and Charles led the way to the elevators, stepping into one whose doors stood open. He pressed the “T” button.

“T?” William asked. “What does that stand for? Terrace?”

Charles shook his head, his eyes twinkling. “Tonga.”

The doors opened, and William heard the sound of a pop-music band churning out a song he hadn’t heard in over a decade, except perhaps in an elevator. “What’s going on?”

“Relax, Will,” Charles retorted, stepping out of the elevator. “It’s called the Tonga Room, and it’s kitschy and lots of fun.”

“Wonderful,” William said, his voice drenched in sarcasm. “Just what I was hoping for tonight. A kitschy, tacky, bar where they play really bad pop music.”

“This is a quintessential San Francisco experience, my friend. You just don’t know how to enjoy yourself.”

William’s mind flashed to Elizabeth lying in his arms on the blanket in Golden Gate Park that afternoon. “I beg to differ,” he said, casting a haughty glance at Charles, who responded with a chuckle.

Ahead of them was a room that didn’t deviate far from William’s conception of the seventh ring of Hell. He had once heard that at Disneyland there was something called the Enchanted Tiki Room, and it appeared that the Fairmont, in a fit of criminal insanity, had attempted to recreate it in the basement of their hotel. That this place aspired to be a tiki room was unquestionable, but William would not under any circumstances have described it as “enchanted.”

As he and Charles proceeded through the bar, William stared in scornful incredulity at the decor. Fish nets adorned the walls, accented by artificial flowers and fish. Fake palm trees, tiki torches, hurricane lanterns, and wooden statues abounded. The wooden plank floor in the center of the room was reminiscent of an old ship, and the decorator apparently suffered from a misguided fondness for wicker furniture, a style that suited the theme but that William despised.

They seated themselves at a table for two next to a railing. After William finished inspecting the thatched roof above him, a deep frown creasing his forehead, he looked past the railing and noticed the worst part of all. Not content to hint at a nautical theme, the establishment had placed its band on a raft that floated in the center of a lagoon.

“Let me get this straight, Charles. You’ve taken me for a quiet after-dinner drink at a ridiculous-looking bar where a pathetically bad band drifts around a swimming pool while they play out-of-date ‘music,’ to use that term loosely. And you imagined that I would find this enjoyable?”

Charles’s shoulders shook with his silent laughter. “The Tonga Room is supposed to be a little kitschy; that’s the whole point. But as tiki bars go, this one has a lot of class. C’mon, yank that big ol’ stick out of your butt and have some fun.”

William concluded that the only fun to be had would be by Charles, who was clearly deriving a great deal of amusement from his discomfort. “I don’t suppose they have brandy here?”

“I’m sure they do. But in this atmosphere, you’d order a brandy? You can’t be serious.” Charles signaled the approaching cocktail waitress. “Two mai tais, please.” The waitress vanished before William could correct the order.

William’s worst fears were realized when the drinks arrived in mugs shaped like hula dancers, complete with spears of tropical fruit and gaily colored paper umbrellas. He pushed his drink away. “I never imagined that I’d need to say the words, ‘I refuse to drink something that comes with an umbrella in it.’”

Charles reached over and snatched the umbrella from William’s mai tai. “There. Not an umbrella in sight.”

William was about to answer when the room was filled with the recorded rumble of thunder.

Charles grabbed William’s arm. “Watch this! It’s the best part.”

As William’s frown grew deeper and more bewildered, sheets of simulated rain fell from the ceiling into the pool. Two couples dancing near the lagoon were apparently sprayed by the downpour: they jumped away, laughing uproariously.

“Don’t you love it?” Charles asked, his eyes more alive than William had seen them all weekend. But when William’s frown stayed firmly in place, Charles sighed and his enthusiasm fizzled. “Look, Will, I know it’s kind of silly. I get it. But I haven’t had any fun in ages. I’m working hard, and Father is almost pleased with my work, but … all right, I’ll say it. I hate it, all of it. I hate my job, and I spend all my time missing Jane and my life up here. Sure, the weather and the surfing are great, and that was enough when I was sixteen. But not anymore.”

Charles’s distress pierced William’s self-absorbed disdain. “I had no idea things were that bad. Whenever I ask you how you’re doing, you always say that everything is fine.”

“I’ve been trying to make the best of things. But I don’t know how much longer I can stand it. The only saving grace is that I’ve gotten much closer to Mother.”

“Oh?” William wasn’t impressed by Charles’s mother, a wraith of a woman who trailed in her husband’s shadow.

“She hasn’t had the easiest life, dealing with Father all these years. And I think she was upset with him for the way he handled the situation back in May. We’ve been spending some time together when he’s not around, and I think she really enjoys having me in LA. If I left, she’d be alone with Father again.”

William wasn’t sure what to say, so he picked up his mai tai, frowning at the fanciful glass. Drinking from the fluorescent green straw was an indignity he had no intention of suffering, so he pushed it aside and tipped back the glass, only to be smacked in the nose by a slice of the pineapple garnish. He dropped the offending fruit into the glass and tried again, this time conceding defeat and using the straw. To his surprise, the drink wasn’t too bad. It tasted like a tangy fruit punch.

“That’s a good man,” Charles said. “Drink up, and let’s get into the spirit of things. I really need to have some silly, meaningless fun tonight, okay?”

William was appropriately chastened. “Okay. I didn’t mean to … rain on your parade.” he quipped, smirking, as the ersatz rainstorm ended.

“Now, that’s more like it!” Charles gulped his mai tai. “You’ll be disco dancing with a little umbrella between your teeth before the night is over.”

“I seriously doubt that.” But William smiled in spite of himself.

 

Charles’s prediction didn’t materialize, but once William jettisoned his disapproving attitude he discovered that the Tonga Room wasn’t without some potential for entertainment. He still found the entire concept perplexing, unsure why as elegant an establishment as the Fairmont had built a monument to questionable taste in its basement. But by the arrival of the third simulated rainstorm, he had found himself greeting the periodic downpours with a surprising degree of enjoyment.

It was entirely possible that the mai tais were a factor in the improvement of his mood. He hadn’t kept up with Charles, who had consumed a remarkable number of drinks between his frequent trips to the dance floor. But the empty glass from William’s third mai tai sat on the table beside him, and he was seriously considering eating the alcohol-soaked fruit, reasoning that it was a wiser choice than ordering a fourth oversized mug.

I wonder what Lizzy would say about this place. A blissful smile creased his cheeks and his eyes drifted shut as he imagined her standing on the raft in the center of the lagoon, singing love songs to him. He imagined her wearing a silky sarong draped over her body, leaving one shoulder bare. Her hair swirled around her, trailing down her back. He saw himself striding across the surface of the lagoon, having apparently developed the ability to walk on water. He bundled her into his arms and carried her to terra firma, laying her on a bed of plastic palm fronds that appeared as if by magic. In another episode of timely sorcery, the bar’s other patrons vanished, leaving the two of them alone. He knelt beside her, drinking in the loving expression in her eyes, his hands caressing her satiny skin. Just as he untied the knot at her shoulder holding the sarong in place, he heard a voice.

“Excuse me?”

He opened his eyes to find an attractive red-haired woman in a simple black dress standing beside him. He looked up at her with a quizzical expression.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Marie Baker.”

Politeness required that he rise to his feet. He stepped out from under the thatched roof over their table and shook her proffered hand. “I’m William Darcy.”

She nodded, her eyes lighting up. “I thought so. William Darcy, the pianist?”

“That’s right.”

Her smile, which had already been friendly, warmed even more. “I saw you in concert last year with the San Francisco Symphony. You were wonderful.”

Although William wasn’t entirely comfortable with fan encounters, he was by no means immune to compliments. He smiled at her, relaxing slightly. “Thank you.”

“Are you in town to perform with the symphony again?”

“No; I’m involved in a special program at Pacific Conservatory this fall.”

“That sounds interesting.”

She wore an expectant smile, but he was uncertain what to say in response, so he simply looked back at her and waited, a polite but detached smile on his face.

After a brief pause, Marie evidently realized that the burden of conversation was going to be hers. “I thought I recognized you. But even if I was wrong, I thought it was a shame for most attractive man in the room to be sitting alone. Would you like to dance?”

William wasn’t immune to this form of flattery either, but he shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t think so.”

“I understand. A lot of men don’t like to dance, though your friend obviously does.” She glanced toward the dance floor. “All right, then, let’s sit down. I’ll keep you company till he gets back.”

“That’s kind of you, but … I’m seeing someone.” He was surprised how good it felt to say that.

Marie shrugged and gave him a rueful smile. “Lucky her. Well, it was nice to meet you, William.”

As she walked away, William returned to his chair and looked back toward the dance floor, where Charles and his latest partner gyrated to the boisterous music. After a few minutes, the raft docked at the edge of the lagoon, allowing the band to take a break. Charles returned to the table and dropped into his chair, wearing a broad grin.

“You’re missing a good time,” he said, wiping his damp forehead with a cocktail napkin. “But I know I’d be wasting my breath trying to convince you to get yourself a partner after the band comes back from their break.”

“I was asked to dance just a short time ago,” William said with a superior air.

“Oh, yeah, I saw the cute redhead who came over here. Why didn’t you say yes? I bet you would have had fun.”

“You know me better than that. Dancing isn’t my idea of fun.” Unless it’s a slow dance. With Lizzy.

“That’s why I said I’d be wasting my breath trying to change your mind. Anyway, Will, thanks for putting up with this place. I know it’s not your thing, but I’m feeling a lot better now.”

“I’m glad, but I wonder how you’ll be feeling in the morning.” Charles wasn’t drunk to the point of incoherence, but he had consumed enough liquor that he was likely to have some regrets tomorrow.

Charles shrugged. “It’s a good anaesthetic.”

“I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble getting over Jane. Have you—” William stopped himself. Obviously the mai tais had impaired his judgment. He had been about to suggest that Charles contact Jane and attempt to resume their relationship. But there’s still the whole issue of her mother, and the pre-nup, and the money. Nothing has really changed.

It occurred to William that his early rejection at Elizabeth’s hands, as painful as it had been, supplied convincing proof that her present interest in him was unrelated to his bank balance. He was fortunate that she had escaped the worst of her mother’s influence while growing up, perhaps because she had attended both high school and college so far from home.

Charles, while waiting for William to finish his sentence, had picked up a small pink umbrella from the table and was holding its toothpick-sized handle, twirling it absently. Thunder rumbled in the background, signaling the arrival of another tropical storm, and William had had enough. He caught the waitress’s eye and requested their check.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s call it a night.”

A few minutes later, after saying their goodbyes in the lobby, Charles proceeded upstairs to his room and William exited the hotel. He walked the short distance to his building, welcoming the bracing effect of the cool, damp night air.

Mrs. Reynolds had left on a few lights, forming a path to his room; he switched them off as he made his way down the hall. Once he reached his bedroom, he checked the clock beside his bed. It was almost 11:15. It’s late, but I guess I could still call Lizzy; after all, she was going out tonight too.

He pulled a slip of paper out of his wallet, grateful that he had swallowed his pride before leaving New York and had asked Sonya to chase down Elizabeth’s home phone number. To his surprise, Sonya had simply handed him the number the following day, bypassing the opportunity to offer jests or ask penetrating questions. There might even have been sympathy in her eyes, though with Sonya it was often hard to tell.

William dialed the number, and after two rings the answering machine picked up. He left his message and hung up with a heavy sigh. He’d been an idiot earlier that day not to ask for her cell phone number. Then I could call her now, wherever she is.

Despite his busy day, William was wide awake. He decided to sit up in bed for a while and read his new San Francisco history book. Maybe Elizabeth would get his message soon and call him back. That would be the perfect end to his day.

 

It was just past midnight when Jane and Elizabeth got home. They had invited Charlotte to spend the night on their couch rather than risking the drive back to Berkeley after a full night of revelry and sangria, but she had headed for Roger’s apartment in a cab.

Elizabeth had enjoyed the evening, but she was glad to be home. She was feeling the combined effect of sleep deprivation, a busy day in the fresh air and sunshine, and a little too much to drink. She went straight to her bedroom, changed into her nightshirt, and then wandered into the kitchen, yawning. Jane was there, filling the teakettle with water.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“No, thanks. But I was wondering … do you want to talk about last night? We’ve been so busy, we haven’t had a chance till now. I know it was hard for you, seeing Charles that way.”

Jane nodded slowly. “I knew he was probably dating by now. After all, I’ve been out on a few dates myself. But knowing it and seeing it first-hand are two different things.”

“Especially with Caroline rubbing it in about how close he and Elena supposedly are. You know that was probably a lie, just to make you suffer.”

Jane put the kettle on the stove. “I don’t know what Caroline would gain by trying to hurt me.”

“Neither do I, but I don’t think she needs a reason to hurt people. All I know is, for a man who was supposedly in San Francisco for the weekend with his steady girlfriend, Charles looked miserable. Every time I saw him, he was looking at you.”

“Lizzy, it’s sweet of you to try to make it seem like he still cares, but—”

“I’m telling you exactly what I saw. He especially hated it when you were talking to … what was his name? The guy who asked for your number?”

“Jordan.”

“Right, Jordan. Charles was putting a lot of energy into glaring at the guy, for someone who doesn’t care about you anymore. Maybe you should call him in the morning and invite him to brunch before he heads home. You still love him, and if he loves you as much as I think he does, I bet you could work things out.”

“But nothing has changed. We loved each other before, and that wasn’t enough to make things work.”

“That was before Charles found out what it would be like to live without you. Really, Jane, call him.”

Jane sighed. “I can’t. And it’s not because I don’t want to see him, or because I think he wouldn’t want to hear from me. It’s because I miss him so much that I might do something foolish. If he asked me again to give up my law practice and move to LA with him, and to become the social ornament his father thinks he needs for a wife … I might say yes this time. But I can’t sell my soul, not even for Charles. If I did that, I wouldn’t be the woman he fell in love with. I’m afraid we’d both end up miserable.”

“But maybe by now he’s had his fill of life with Father. For all we know, he might be talking to William right now, saying, ‘If she asked me to quit my father’s company and move back to San Francisco, I’d say yes.’”

“But I couldn’t ask him to do that.”

“Don’t you think he’d be better off? You saw what his father was like.”

A tear leaked out of Jane’s eye, and she brushed it away. “Yes, I saw. And I’m worried about Charles. But he has to decide for himself.”

“Don’t you want to help him to see what’s best?”

“What if William had to make a choice like that? Suppose he had to turn his back on his family and his inheritance if he wanted to be with you. Wouldn’t you want him to make the decision on his own, without your influence? And if he chose you, wouldn’t you feel guilty, like you’d taken something away from him? Wouldn’t you worry that he might regret his choice some day, and it would be your fault?”

Elizabeth sighed. “You’re right, as always. But I hate seeing you so unhappy.”

“I’m fine, really,” Jane said, with a tremulous smile. “I just wasn’t expecting to see Charles, and it threw me off balance. I’ll get over it. But it helps so much to have you here with me. It’s been hard having you so far away all these years.”

“I know. I’ve missed you so much.” The sisters hugged, and Elizabeth felt sudden tears stinging her eyes.

“You look tired, Lizzy. Are you off to bed now?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I think so. Good night, Jane. Don’t stay up too late.”

As Elizabeth turned to go, she saw the answering machine on the counter, its message indicator patiently blinking. She pressed the “Play” button, and her eyes sparkled at the sound of William’s voice.

“Hello, Lizzy? Are you there? It’s William … Darcy … I guess you’re not home. I called to thank you for … for today. I’ll be up until at least midnight, and probably later, so if you get this before it’s too late, call me.” He ended by dictating his cell phone number. She jotted it down quickly on a scrap of paper near the phone, though she could have retrieved it from the address book in her bedroom as well.

Elizabeth cast a quick glance at the clock. “12:20.” she said. “Should I call him?”

“Of course you should.”

“But I shouldn’t bother him this late.”

“It sounded like he really wanted to talk to you. He might even be sitting up waiting for your call.”

This last argument convinced Elizabeth, and she dialed his number. Jane poured a cup of tea and left the kitchen, explaining quietly that she’d be in the living room. Just before the fourth ring, which would lead to the inevitable sound of Sonya’s voice on his voicemail greeting, she heard a husky voice murmur, “Hello?”

“William, it’s Lizzy.”

“Hi.”

The drowsy pleasure in that single syllable brought a tender smile to her face. “I’m sorry. I woke you, didn’t I?”

“I was sitting here reading, and I must have dozed off.” He paused, and she thought she could hear him yawning. “I’m glad you called.”

“I shouldn’t keep you, though. You ought to be in bed. It’s late, and you need your rest.” I bet I sound just like Mrs. Reynolds!

“I am in bed. But if you’d like to come over and tuck me in …”

Elizabeth imagined him lounging in bed, propped up among the pillows, his eyelids heavy with sleep, his hair adorably tousled. A lascivious thought popped into her head, causing her cheeks to flush: I wonder if he wears pajamas, or if …

“Did you have fun tonight?” he asked, when she didn’t respond to his remark.

“Yes, we did.” She seated herself at the kitchen table. “How about you and Charles?”

“‘Fun’ might not be quite the right word, but it was good to see him.”

“How is he doing?”

“It’s a difficult adjustment for him, being back in LA.”

Elizabeth considered asking outright if Charles was missing Jane, but with her sister in the next room, possibly overhearing, she couldn’t. “Well, it’s late and I should let you get back to sleep.”

“I’d rather talk to you. I was wondering if you had an answer for me about dinner on Monday.”

The teakettle began to whistle, and Elizabeth stepped across the small kitchen to remove it from the burner. “I’m afraid so. The reception’s on Monday, for sure.”

“And there’s no way you can get out of it?”

“I really need to be there for Jane. It’s more important than it probably sounds.”

“And you’re busy for dinner tomorrow too.”

Elizabeth heard the frustration in his voice. “The jazz group has a gig. We don’t perform till 8:00, but we have to be there to set up at 6:00. I’d invite you along, but it’s a private party.”

“I could pretend to be a roadie.”

Elizabeth laughed softly, relieved to hear the teasing note in his voice. “Shall we do something on Tuesday evening?”

“Definitely.”

“Okay, that’s settled. Now go to sleep.”

“Yes, ma’am. Good night, Lizzy.”

“Good night.”

“Oh—and, Lizzy?”

“Hmm?”

“I had a good time today.”

“Me too. Sleep well.”

When Jane returned to the kitchen a minute later, Elizabeth was pouring steaming water from the kettle into a mug. “From the look on your face,” Jane remarked, “it must have been a nice conversation.”

The silly smile Elizabeth knew that she wore grew even wider. “I woke him up, but I think he was trying to stay awake till I called.”

“I know I’ve said this before, Lizzy, but I’m so happy for you. From the way you talk about him, it’s obvious how much you like him.”

“I do. I really do. But …” Elizabeth’s smile faded and she leaned over the counter, her elbows resting on the Formica surface.

“Is there anything you’d like to talk about? This morning you said you wanted my advice about William. Or are you too tired right now?”

Elizabeth fiddled with the tea bag tag hanging over the edge of the mug for a moment. “Now that you mention it, I think I do want to talk.” The sisters moved into the living room and sat together on the couch.

Jane was the best listener Elizabeth knew. She was especially good at letting people explain things their own way, at their own pace. She proved it in this situation by not peppering Elizabeth with questions the moment they sat down. Instead, she allowed Elizabeth to silently collect her thoughts while watching her with sympathetic interest.

“I’m not sure exactly where to begin. I … well, you know more or less what happened in New York, when William came to my apartment.”

Jane nodded, sipping her tea.

“I’ve had a couple more ‘Michael flashbacks,’ like I had that night, when I’ve been with William. Last night, we went to the Marin headlands to see the view, and while we were up there, he kissed me. And it got passionate, and … well, he didn’t do anything wrong. He just got passionate all of a sudden. At first it just startled me, but it triggered a memory of Michael, and then I got scared.”

“What did you do?”

“It was hard, but I didn’t freak out like I did that other time. I pulled away, and then we got back in the car and talked a little. I told him we needed to slow things down.”

“Good for you.” Jane set down her mug of tea and patted Elizabeth’s arm. “I know that wasn’t easy. What did he say?”

“I know it frustrated him, but he was really nice about it, and he still wants to see me.”

“Of course he does. See? Char and I kept telling you that he was interested in more than just sex.”

“I know. I admit, I was wrong about that.”

“Finally!” Jane stood up. “Would you like a snack? I’m kind of hungry.”

“No, thanks. I’m still full from dinner.”

Jane padded barefoot into the kitchen. She called out, “It sounds like the two of you really have a good time together.”

“You’d think it wouldn’t work at all. He’s so reserved and … taciturn is the best word, I guess, and I’m so … not those things.”

Jane returned, an apple in her hand. “I know it’s a cliché, but sometimes opposites really do attract.”

“I suppose. But when we’re together it doesn’t feel like we’re opposites. I mean, I guess I do more of the talking than he does, but in a strange way, we both change when we’re together. He’s much more cheerful and talkative, and I’m calmer and quieter. So we kind of meet in the middle, if that makes sense.”

“You bring out the best in each other. That’s one of the great things about love.”

Elizabeth felt a shiver go through her. “Slow down. I said I liked him; I never said anything about love.”

“You don’t need to say it,” Jane said with an affectionate smile. “It’s in your eyes, and it’s in your voice when you talk about him.”

“I’m not ready to love him, or anyone else,” Elizabeth insisted, twisting a lock of hair around her finger.

“That isn’t really a choice you get to make. When it happens, it happens. Besides, love is a precious gift; you should welcome it and enjoy it.”

“My experiences with love haven’t been pleasant. And neither have yours. Not lately, anyway.”

Jane’s smile held a measure of sadness. “I don’t regret loving Charles. I wish I could get over him faster, but I’ve never been as happy as I was during our few months together. Besides, you shouldn’t judge from the past.”

Elizabeth swallowed the last of her tea and set her mug on the coffee table. “I know that … at least, on an intellectual level. But then I have one of those flashbacks. I had one this afternoon, too.”

Jane responded to the quaver in Elizabeth’s voice by setting down her half-eaten rice cake and taking Elizabeth’s hand. “What happened?”

“It was during our picnic. William was stretched out on the blanket, and he fell asleep. I was watching him, and he looked so … beautiful I could barely take my eyes off him. And when he woke up, I bent over and kissed him.” Elizabeth paused, frowning, wondering how to explain the rest.

“And I’m guessing you ended up stretched out on the blanket beside him?” Jane’s eyes held a faint twinkle.

Elizabeth nodded. “We’d set up our blanket in a secluded spot, and I suppose it was inevitable that we’d …. Well, anyway, he leaned over me at one point and it felt like he was pinning me down, and it reminded me of …” Elizabeth shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself.

“I’m here, Lizzy. It’s okay.” Jane placed a comforting arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders.

“I got scared, and I struggled to get free. Luckily he lifted up right then, and I forced myself to relax, and pretty soon it was okay again.”

“Lizzy, I’ve said this before, and it’s your decision, but I think you should talk to someone about this.”

“I am. I’m talking to you.”

“You know what I mean.” Jane fixed her gentle version of a stern-older-sister glare on Elizabeth.

“What I need is to stop being such a twit about the whole thing. I thought I’d put it behind me. But then I met William, and it all started coming back.”

“Well, you said Michael looked like William, so that’s understandable.”

“There’s definitely a resemblance. William is much more handsome, but Michael was nice to look at too. He had the height and the broad shoulders and the dark, wavy hair. And the penetrating eyes.”

“Any similarities in personality?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “A few. Michael was arrogant and self-absorbed, and William can be that way too. And in spite of that they can both be charming. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Michael was outgoing, and so sure of himself. You could even see it in his walk; it was almost a swagger. He was like a force of nature. Once he decided he wanted something, he wouldn’t let anything or anyone get in his way.”

“And William?”

“He’s sure of himself in some areas, but I think he’s got a lot of insecurities. If Michael had any of those, he kept them well hidden. It’s so interesting. Sometimes William takes charge and it’s pointless to argue with him, and then other times I feel like I need to shelter him and keep him safe.”

“Maybe if you could focus on their differences, instead of the similarities, it would help.”

“The problem is, there’s another big similarity, and I think this is the one that worries me the most. Michael was a legend in his own time in the Musical Theater department. I was just a year behind him, so I saw him in all his starring roles in musicals. He got the first one his sophomore year, which was almost unheard of. The faculty supposedly considered him the best actor they’d trained in over a decade. And his singing voice … oh, if you could have heard it. Warm and mellow and …” Elizabeth sighed, shaking her head.

“A voice like that can be seductive,” Jane said quietly.

“He could have had just about any girl he wanted in the Musical Theater program.” Elizabeth’s eyes hardened. “And I guess he did.”

Jane set down her mug. “I’m not getting the connection to William.”

“Well, I admired both of them from afar before I got close to them. So in both cases, you might say that my idol came down off his pedestal and noticed me. I think that’s why Michael was able to use me the way he did. I was so flattered that this demigod—because in my world, that’s what he was—found me interesting. Or seemed to, at least.”

“I see where you’re going with this. You’re afraid that you’re doing the same thing with William.”

Elizabeth tucked her legs under her on the sofa. “Exactly. I think that’s why I have trouble trusting him. It’s made me overly cautious, and overcritical too—”

Jane smiled gently. “I’m afraid I have to agree, Lizzy. You’ve been pretty hard on him. He’s made some mistakes, but I think he’s a good man.”

“But can you blame me for having doubts? William came down from a much higher pedestal, so it’s even harder to accept. It’s like I’m in the Land of Oz, and I want to make sure I’ve seen the man behind the curtain, not just the image of the Wizard. Because for all the things I think I know about William, we really aren’t that well acquainted yet.”

“The good news is, now you have some time to take things slowly and find out what sort of man he really is. That’ll solve your problem, won’t it?”

“Yes and no. I mean, I realized today that I’m making progress in understanding him, and even starting to trust him a little bit. But I don’t have that much time. He leaves at the end of October.”

“He’s not staying till the end of the semester?” Jane’s eyes widened.

“Nope. Just two months.”

“That’s a shame.” Jane thought for a moment, and then her face brightened. “But, really, that’s more time than you think, to find out if there’s potential for something serious. And if things go well, you’ll find a way to keep your relationship going after that. Maybe you’ll even move back to New York some day to be with him.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “Gee, I’ve only been here for two months, and already you’re trying to get rid of me!”

Jane smiled and patted Elizabeth’s arm. “You know that’s the last thing I want.”

“I don’t know. Here I am, keeping you up half the night babbling at you. You probably got more sleep before I appeared on your doorstep.”

“Don’t be silly. Our gabfests are one of my favorite things. I just hope I’ve helped.”

“You have, like always.” Elizabeth squeezed Jane’s hand. “But we should get to bed; it must be late.”

“Good idea.”

They carried their mugs into the kitchen and placed them in the sink. As they left the kitchen for their respective bedrooms, Elizabeth glanced at the answering machine, which still held William’s message, and a tiny smile touched her lips. It’s been quite a day.