There were few things William hated more than being late, especially when it was someone else’s fault. As he pulled into the conservatory’s parking lot he darted a frustrated glance at his watch, its hands seeming to stare back at him in mute accusation.

His interview with the arts reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle had run far over its allotted time, and as the hour had grown later he had considered terminating the interview and leaving for his lunch date. But the reporter had promised to give the Darcy Arts Trust and its mission prominent coverage in the piece, and she had saved that topic for the end of the interview.

The muscles in his jaw were tense as he shut off the Ferrari’s engine. Ordinarily he would have searched for two parking spaces side by side in order to protect his beloved car from dents and scratches, but he was in a hurry and wouldn’t be parked for long in any case. Long, powerful strides propelled him along the path to the conservatory’s main building.

To William’s chagrin, he found Bill Collins lounging in the doorway to Elizabeth’s office. No wonder he can’t seem to get anything done. He’s too busy trying to steal my girl. William gritted his teeth, his voice gruff. “Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy.” Bill turned to him, his expression remarkably like that of an eager puppy. Maybe I should smack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper.

Elizabeth smiled at William. “Hi.”

The private greeting in her eyes dissolved William’s annoyance, and his expression warmed. “Hello,” he murmured, the word a soft caress.

“I assume Mrs. Reynolds is on her way home?”

William nodded. “She asked me to pass on her best regards.”

Their eyes met and held. Images of last night flooded William’s mind, their passionate interlude at the piano claiming a starring role. From the look in Elizabeth’s eyes, her thoughts appeared to be in a similar vein.

Oblivious to the electricity crackling in the air, Bill prattled on. “Everything is all set in your studio, Mr. Darcy. And the piano technician is standing by to work with you whenever it’s convenient. In fact, perhaps you’d like to take care of that now?”

Before William could respond, Bill fished his cell phone out of his pocket. “I’ll just call him now and he can be in your studio in a jiffy. And perhaps if you’re done in time, you’d like to join Elizabeth and me for lunch. I was just about to invite her to the cafeteria for a bite to eat.”

“Hold on a minute, Collins. This isn’t a good time; I’m already running behind schedule. I’d prefer to see the technician at around 3:00.”

“Of course, I’ll be happy to make those arrangements. I’m sorry that it sounds like you aren’t free for lunch, though.”

Neither is she, so don’t get any ideas.

Bill turned to Elizabeth. “Shall we be off, then?”

She smiled at Bill with a warmth that had William grinding his teeth until he absorbed her words. “Thank you for the invitation, but I’m afraid I already have plans for lunch.”

“Yes, she does,” William declared, lifting his chin. He turned to Elizabeth. “And I’m sorry I’m late. I hope you got my message.”

She nodded. “Don’t worry about it. There’s still enough time.”

“Have you decided on a restaurant?” William shot a quick glance in Bill’s direction, feeling almost savage triumph at the crestfallen expression on his rival’s face.

Elizabeth’s eyes darted between the two men, finally resting on William. “Do you like sushi?”

“Love it.”

“Great! There’s a great little place not far from here. Bill, would you like to join us?”

William fixed an incredulous stare on Elizabeth. Three was definitely a crowd, especially if Bill Collins was the third.

Bill preened at the invitation, but then shook his head in dawning regret. “Oh, how I wish I could, but I need to stay on campus. Dr. de Bourgh is entertaining some visiting dignitaries—tremendously important people, true luminaries of the arts world—and she might require my assistance at any moment. That’s why I’m restricted to the cafeteria for lunch today.”

“What a shame,” Elizabeth answered. “William is new in town, and he doesn’t know that many people, so I’m helping him to get settled. Perhaps you can help him too; I’m sure he’d love to hear the masculine perspective on the social scene.”

William covered his snicker with a quiet cough as Elizabeth continued, “And I can’t think of anyone who’s better qualified to fill William in on the goings-on at the conservatory. I don’t know what I would have done without your guidance when I was new here.”

Bill shifted from one foot to another, his blush extending all the way up to his receding hairline. “You’re very kind, and I suppose I am unusually well-informed.” He removed his glasses, using a small cloth from his pocket to clean them with meticulous attention. “Some other time, I’d love to join you for sushi. I’ve had it just two or three times and I’m not particularly knowledgeable, but I’m sure you could help me to navigate the menu. Dr. de Bourgh often advises me to broaden my knowledge of the finer things in life. She says that for someone in my position it’s essential to do so.”

A soft snort escaped William’s throat. Although Elizabeth’s expression was composed, when her eyes flicked in his direction they were brimming with amusement. “We’d better get going,” he said. “I know your time is somewhat limited.”

“I’m ready.” Elizabeth stood up, smoothing the slim skirt of her tailored suit.

William thought it was just as well that he’d never had a teacher as alluring as Elizabeth, because he’d have been far too distracted to learn anything. He couldn’t stop his eyes from sliding over her body, drinking in the tempting curves accented by the form-fitting silhouette of her jacket and skirt. He noticed Bill doing the same thing, and shot a warning glare at him.

“You’ll set up things up with the piano tech?” William’s voice was harsher than he had intended, but when he saw that Bill was still ogling Elizabeth, he didn’t regret his tone. “Collins? Did you hear me?”

Bill snapped to attention, all but saluting. “Absolutely. I’ll do it this instant.”

“Thank you.” William turned back to Elizabeth and gestured toward the hallway. “Shall we go?”

They parted ways with Bill and continued in silence until they exited the building. Then Elizabeth turned to William, her eyes wide with astonishment.

“I thought you wanted to be discreet! I can’t believe you flaunted the fact that we were having lunch!”

“Never mind that. What possessed you to invite him along?”

“He’s been asking some odd questions about you, and about us, and he’s the worst gossip on campus. I thought if I asked him to lunch he’d be less suspicious. I knew he’d have to say no; he’d already told me about all those ‘true luminaries of the arts world’ he has to babysit.”

“In that case, well done. I thought you actually wanted him to come with us.”

“My acting training comes in handy sometimes.” She wrinkled her nose. “Although, really, once you get past his peculiarities he’s a nice man—”

William clenched his jaw. The last thing he wanted to hear was Elizabeth singing Bill Collins’s praises. “I’ve noticed that you seem to spend quite a bit of time with him.”

“We’re casual friends and he’s in the jazz group, but I don’t see why …” Her voice trailed off as she scrutinized him, her brow furrowed. After a moment, a look of dawning understanding spread across her features. “You’re jealous.”

“That’s absurd.” He jutted his chin out, squaring his shoulders.

Her eyes gleaming, she darted a shrewd glance at him. “No, it’s not. That’s why you told him we were having lunch. You were marking your territory, weren’t you?”

Unable to think of a convincing defense, he trudged on beside her in silence, feeling a flush creeping up his neck.

“And is that another reason why you were so tough on him yesterday? Because of me?”

Elizabeth didn’t know that William had called her yesterday immediately after his doctor’s appointment, hoping that the sound of her voice would soothe his distress, only to be told that she was in the cafeteria with Bill and thus unavailable. He offered an evasive answer. “He wants you, you know.”

“Not really. He’s just being friendly. Granted, he asked me out a few times when I first moved here, but I’ve made it clear that I’m not interested in anything but friendship.”

He snorted. “And I can see that it’s having a major effect. Haven’t you seen the way his eyes crawl all over you?”

“You mean, like yours did a few minutes ago?” She quirked an eyebrow at him.

His flush spread to his face. He hadn’t realized that she’d noticed his slow, covetous stare. “That’s different,” he stammered.

“Different how?”

Because you’re mine. Because I love you. “It just is.”

She made a soft, choked sound that sounded like a suppressed laugh, only serving to deepen his embarrassment.

They arrived at his car and he held the door open for her. She paused and touched his arm, speaking with gentle sincerity. “You can’t seriously believe that I’d rather be with him than with you.”

“I just don’t like him trying to make moves on my girlfriend.” He hadn’t intended to sound petulant, but on reflection he didn’t regret saying it.

She looked at the ground abruptly and he saw her blush, a tiny smile curving her lips. Satisfied that the shoe was now securely fastened on the other foot, William helped her into the car and crossed to the driver’s side.

“Enough about Collins,” he declared as he seated himself behind the wheel. “Let’s get some lunch.”

 

The tiny sushi restaurant was teeming with activity, but they managed to grab a small table in the back. William had grown quiet, even for him, and Elizabeth was finding his silence unnerving. He sat with a pensive air, his arms folded on the table, volunteering only brief responses to her conversational gambits. On an impulse, she reached out and touched his hand.

“What’s wrong? And don’t say ‘nothing,’ because I know that’s not true. But I’m not a mind reader.”

“I’ve been thinking about our conversation on the way to the car. I mean, when I referred to you as my girlfriend.”

“Yes?” Hearing the word from his lips for the first time had caused a little flutter in her stomach.

“I suppose it sounded stupid, like we’re teenagers. Somebody needs to come up with a better term.”

“I thought it sounded fine.” There were far worse things in the world than being called William Darcy’s girlfriend, especially when William was the one saying it.

A brief, distracted smile flitted across his face, vanishing almost as quickly as it had appeared. “But I don’t know if you understood what I meant.”

She raised her eyebrows, silently inviting him to continue.

“I want us to be exclusive—not to see other people, I mean. Unless you think it’s too soon.”

This time the flutter in her stomach was much stronger. Although a voice in a far corner of her mind argued that it was indeed much too soon, she surprised herself by answering, almost without hesitation, “I’d like that.”

A mixture of delight and relief showed on his face. “Good. Because I want you all to myself.”

“You never learned how to share, did you?” she teased. “No brothers or sisters near your age.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered. Some things are too precious to share.”

His dark eyes were full of tenderness, and she felt herself drowning in their depths. In an attempt to restore her equilibrium, she resorted to another mild tease. “Not that this really changes anything. As much as we’ve been together lately, the only time when either of us could have gone on a date with somebody else was at about four o’clock yesterday morning.”

He chuckled. “True. And I hope it stays that way.”

“I doubt it. Pretty soon you’ll be so busy that I’ll have to call your secretary to make an appointment to see you.”

“Never.” He slid his chair closer to hers and raised her hand to his lips. “So I guess this means you’re my steady girl?”

Elizabeth’s eyes bubbled with laughter. “Okay, now we do sound like teenagers. Do I get to wear your class ring on a chain around my neck? Or did one of your ex-girlfriends keep it?”

“I’m afraid I don’t own a class ring. I’ll have to come up with something else.”

“I was just kidding. You don’t need to give me anything.”

“Oh, yes I do. I don’t want to look bad compared to your past boyfriends.”

“You have nothing to worry about on that score.” Her smile faded.

William tightened his hold on her hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing that matters now.” She forced a smile onto her face.

William inspected her closely, and for a moment she expected him to probe further, but instead he changed the subject. “You know, regarding class rings and going steady, my teen years weren’t like that. Sometimes I feel a little cheated.”

“Did you go to your high school prom?”

“I didn’t have a prom to go to.”

“Oh, that’s right. You said you did your senior year with a tutor.”

“I missed those quintessential teen experiences. You know, drive-in theaters, back seats of cars …”

“Sharing an ice cream soda with two straws?”

“Exactly.”

She shook her head with a rueful laugh. “I’m afraid you’re describing the quintessential 1950’s teen experience. By the time I was in high school, Susie and Bobbie weren’t hanging out at the malt shop anymore. Teenagers were sharing beer, not ice cream. And there weren’t many drive-ins left.”

“Spoilsport,” he grumbled.

“I know. Shame on me for bursting your bubble. Well, let’s see. Maybe we can find a way to regain your lost youth.” She pressed her lips together, frowning, and then her eyes widened in triumph. “I think there’s still a drive-in theater in San Jose. We could go down there if you really want the full teenage experience.”

“Absolutely. And maybe we could get an ice cream soda afterwards. With two straws, of course.”

“It’s a deal,” she said with a soft laugh, charmed by his boyish enthusiasm. “I’ll check into it. Maybe we could drive down some time this weekend, depending on what’s playing.”

“I don’t care what’s playing,” he murmured. “If I understand correctly, the point of going to a drive-in isn’t to watch the movie.” He stroked her palm with his thumb, the feather-light contact leaving her whole hand tingling, and their eyes met in a stare of sudden heat.

A waiter arrived with their food, interrupting the moment, and Elizabeth sat back self-consciously, turning her attention to her bento box.

 

Elizabeth unlocked her office door and checked the clock on the wall. She was relieved to see that she had almost fifteen minutes before her next student would arrive. William, who had returned with her, inspected a small picture hanging on the wall near the door. It was a photo of herself in nun’s garb, playing a guitar.

“Is this you as Maria von Trapp?”

She nodded. “It’s from a college production in my senior year. You can imagine how thrilled I was to get the part.”

“I bet you were wonderful.”

“It was a good role for me, I think. Energetic and innocent … or more accurately, na´ve.” She was annoyed by the quaver in her voice. She turned away from him, ostensibly to check her voicemail. There were no messages waiting, and when she turned back she found him studying her intently.

“Na´ve in what sense?”

“I’d always considered myself a good judge of character, but …” She sighed. “Well, in college I learned otherwise, that’s all.”

He stepped closer, touching her cheek in an exquisitely tender caress. “I’m going to have to ask you to stop criticizing my girlfriend. As far as I’m concerned, she’s perfect, and I won’t have you suggesting otherwise.”

Basking in his affectionate smile, she took a step toward him. “You can be the sweetest man sometimes. I wish you’d let more people see that side of you.”

The sound of footsteps echoed in the hall and they sprang apart, exchanging rueful smiles.

“I should get ready for my afternoon students,” she said with a reluctant sigh. “I don’t want you to go, but …”

“I understand; duty calls.”

“Thank you for lunch. It was wonderful.” Elizabeth wasn’t talking about the food; she barely remembered eating anything.

He nodded. “We’ll make a habit of it. Now, before I go, what time shall I pick you up tonight?”

“Tonight? We don’t have plans tonight.”

“Not specifically, but a few days ago we agreed we’d do something tonight.”

“But that was when I didn’t think I was free for dinner on Monday.”

He shrugged. “So? Why can’t we go out both nights?”

“The thing is, I have a couple of busy teaching days coming up, and I’m still getting settled into the new semester … and I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed right now. I really need tonight to get some work done. Please, couldn’t we postpone till tomorrow?”

“Oh, all right,” he grumbled. “I’ll get in a good practice session tonight, and then probably drown my sorrows in a book. But tomorrow night is mine, and no canceling allowed.”

“It’s a deal. Now, I really do have to kick you out.”

Instead of leaving her office, he pushed the door shut and approached her with an expression that unmistakably declared his intentions. “I’ll go in a minute,” he murmured, drawing her into the circle of his arms. “But first …”

Half an hour later, as her voice student worked through a series of vocal exercises, Elizabeth’s lips still tingled from the memory of his kiss.

 

The grandfather clock in the library chimed ten times, and William looked up from his book with a deep sigh. He was accustomed to solitude, but tonight the stillness in the penthouse seemed oppressive.

Mrs. Reynolds was safely back in New York, preparing the townhouse for Gran and Georgie’s return home from the Hamptons. Mrs. Hill, a taciturn woman with steel-gray hair and an aura of brisk competence, had left a few hours earlier, after serving William’s dinner, and he was alone.

He closed his eyes and summoned up an image of Elizabeth curled up in a chair across the room, a book on her lap. She raised her brilliant green eyes to his and they shared a look of deep contentment that required no words. He exhaled a long, relaxed sigh, his eyes still closed, reluctant to trade this warm fantasy for the solitary world of reality.

His head lolled against the chair back and he drifted in a semi-conscious state, until the clock’s chime at 10:15 recalled him to the present. This is silly. I ought to take my book to bed and read a little more, and then get a good night’s sleep.

He rose slowly, yawning and rubbing his neck, and ambled down the hall, his book tucked under his arm. He prepared for bed mechanically and soon settled himself comfortably between the sheets, clad in boxer shorts and his Juilliard tee shirt.

His eyes fell on his cell phone on the night table. All evening, he had resisted the urge to call Elizabeth. For some reason it seemed important to prove that he could give her an evening’s peace. But it couldn’t hurt to call and say good night. As he stared at the phone, it began to ring, startling him.

“Hello?”

“Hi there, boyfriend.”

Suddenly, all was right in his world. He leaned back against the pillows, his smile blissful. “Hello, girlfriend. I was just about to call you.”

“I guess it’s true what they say: great minds think alike.”

“How was your evening?”

“I got a lot done, but …”

“Hmm?”

“I missed you.”

His smile broadened. “Good, because I’ve been missing you.”

“I thought about calling you earlier, but I promised myself I’d get my work done first.”

“Then you’re done?”

“Not even close. But it’s getting late, and I thought you might decide to go to bed early.”

“As a matter of fact, I’m in bed right now. I thought I’d read myself to sleep.”

“I can just see you, propped up against the pillows, nice and comfy.”

“But I’m here all alone.”

“I wish I were there with you.”

This unexpected admission tightened his chest as he pondered her meaning. Was she implying that she was finally ready to share his bed? Not that we could take full advantage of it, not till that damned doctor gives me the go-ahead, but still, to spend a night with her in my arms, warm and soft and …

“William?”

Her voice pulled him out of the heated fantasy. “Yes, I’m here.”

“About tomorrow night. Something’s come up.”

“Please say you’re not canceling again.”

“The thing is, I just found out late this afternoon that I have two new voice students, and I have to meet with them tomorrow evening. Afterwards it would really be too late to go anywhere. And, also, I’m going to have to work again tomorrow night to get caught up.”

“I don’t like the sound of this.”

“I know, but hold on. I thought maybe you could come over after I get home from work, and we could spend a quiet evening here. You could bring a book to read, or some work for the foundation, and we could keep each other company. Would that be okay?”

His earlier vision of Elizabeth ensconced in a chair across the room flooded his mind. “It sounds perfect, with one small alteration.”

“What?”

“Let’s spend our quiet evening here instead of at your place. Then it’ll be just the two of us.”

She was silent for a second before replying. “Well, okay. I guess that way, we won’t disturb Jane.”

Or, more to the point, Jane won’t disturb us. In addition, it would avoid the awkwardness he always felt when in Jane’s presence. He was finding it impossible not to blame her for causing Charles so much misery. “What time should I pick you up?”

“You don’t need to. I’ll drive myself over there.”

Not this again. “Lizzy, you know how I feel about picking you up for dates.”

“Yes, you’ve made that clear. But let’s see if we can set all that rampant testosterone aside and think logically for a minute. The conservatory is about midway between us. So it would be silly for me to drive home and wait for you to pick me up. We can start our evening earlier if I just come straight to your place from school.”

Her logic was difficult to dispute. “I guess I can live with that just this once.”

“I’m so proud of you. And if you don’t mind a late dinner, I could pick up some take-out on my way over.”

“No need for that. I’ll have Mrs. Hill fix us something that’ll keep till you get here.”

“Even better. And if it needs to be reheated, no problem. I may not be a gourmet cook, but unlike you, I know how to use a microwave.”

His lips twitched. “For your information, so do I. How on earth did I manage to end up with such a smart-mouthed girlfriend?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

Her comment hung in the air, and a contented smile settled slowly onto his face. Languorous peace descended on him, his eyelids growing heavy.

“William?”

Startled by the sound of her voice, he opened his eyes. “Hmmm?”

“I think you nodded off for a minute.”

He had, much to his embarrassment. “No, I’m just relaxing.”

“Uh huh.” She sounded unconvinced. “I think we’d better say good night.”

Reluctant as he was to let her go, he didn’t want to risk snoring into the telephone. “I’m glad you called.”

“So am I. Sleep well, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Elizabeth hung up the phone and returned to the living room. Jane looked up from her stack of legal briefs.

“How’s William?”

Elizabeth plopped down on the sofa. “Sleepy, but otherwise fine.”

“You know you’re absolutely glowing, don’t you? And that’s just from talking to him. Are you ready yet to admit that you’re in love?”

Elizabeth bit her lip, but she couldn’t help smiling. “I’m getting there.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“There are still things about him that confuse me. Other sides of him, things he’s holding back … I don’t know if I can explain.”

Jane set her papers on the coffee table. “You can’t expect to know everything about him at this point. After all, there are things you haven’t told him too.”

“But that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about knowing the name of the first girl who broke his heart, or how old he was the first time he had sex. It’s more fundamental than that. He seems to keep parts of himself locked away.”

“And you’re afraid of what he’s hiding.” Jane nodded. “I can see why you’re concerned. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s trying to mislead you. I think he’s just slow to open up to people. Charles told me that, as close as he and William were in college, he never felt as though he completely knew him.”

“Exactly. And until William shows me at least some of what’s hidden, I can’t trust him. But in the meantime I’m working on dealing with the flashbacks.”

“I’m proud of you, Lizzy,” Jane said, patting Elizabeth’s arm. “I know it’s not easy to confront all of that.”

“I don’t want my memories to interfere every time William and I get close. Besides, I’m blowing things out of proportion. What happened was my fault, but it happened a long time ago. It’s time to let go of it and move on.”

“I can’t agree with the way you’re characterizing it.”

This was an old argument. “But you weren’t there. I was. I have only myself to blame.”

“Lizzy, please don’t say that.”

Elizabeth decided it was time to change the subject. “I talked to Roger today, and he said that he and the guys will definitely handle the drinks for the party.”

Charlotte’s birthday was Friday, and Jane and Elizabeth were hosting a party. “The guys” were the male members of Golden Gate Jazz, whose primary connection to Charlotte was through Roger, their drummer. Elizabeth was continually surprised that Charlotte and Roger were still dating. For Charlotte, three months with a man was tantamount to a lifelong commitment.

Jane smiled. “Of course, you know what that means. Cases of beer, some tequila, and probably one bottle of cheap wine. We’d better plan on getting some better wine, and some soft drinks and bottled water too.”

“I can take care of that.”

“No, let me do it. I know this is a busy week for you. I’ll get some glasses, too; I’m sure they won’t think of that.”

“Thanks, Jane. Oh, and I ordered the party platters today, and took care of the cake. My only problem is, I have a department meeting Friday afternoon, so I can’t get away as early as I hoped to help with setup.”

“That’s okay. I’ll ask Kitty to help. She won’t mind an afternoon away from the office.”

Elizabeth had no doubt of that. Kitty was working out reasonably well as Jane’s paralegal, but she was far more interested in the nightclub scene in the city than in the day-to-day responsibilities of her job. “There are advantages to being the boss, aren’t there?”

“William’s coming to the party, isn’t he?”

“Yes, I asked him last night. I just wish … well, I don’t like the way he acts around you. I hope he behaves better on Friday.”

“He’s probably just uncomfortable because of everything that happened,” Jane said mildly. “I’m glad Charles has such a loyal friend. And, by the way …”

“What?” Elizabeth noted Jane’s anxious expression.

“He’s thinking about flying up for the party.”

“Charles is coming? You’re kidding.”

“Charlotte said he heard about it from the guys, and they invited him.”

“That sounds encouraging.” Elizabeth’s eyes gleamed. “He doesn’t know Charlotte that well, so he must be coming to see you.”

“Not necessarily. It’s probably just a chance for a jam session with the guys; I’m sure he’ll bring his saxophone. You know, I’m in the mood for a cup of tea. Would you like one?”

“Sounds good.”

The sisters went into the kitchen. “Besides,” Jane continued, “as I said the other day, nothing has changed between us.”

“You don’t know that. Maybe he told Daddy Dearest to take a flying leap.”

“If he’d done that, he’d call me, not wait for a big, noisy party to make the announcement. Besides, there’s another problem.” Jane set the teakettle on the stove. “I invited Jordan to the party.”

“Jordan?” Elizabeth frowned. “Oh, I remember. The guy you met at Rosings.”

“Right. He called last night and asked me out to dinner on Friday. I explained that I was busy with the party, and he said it sounded like fun.”

“So you invited him.”

Jane sighed. “It seemed like the polite thing to do. And maybe it’s just as well. Charles will see that I’ve moved on, and that he doesn’t need to feel guilty about what happened or to worry about me.”

“More likely he’ll be jealous,” Elizabeth mused. “He didn’t like seeing you with Jordan at Rosings, and then you were just chatting. This ought to make him crazy.”

“Then you think I should ask Jordan not to come? I’m not sure what I’ll say, but—”

“Heavens, no! A jealous rage might be just what the doctor ordered. Let Charles see that you haven’t just been sitting home pining for him.”

“That’s what Charlotte said too, but I don’t want to upset Charles. Not that he’ll necessarily be upset. After all, he has Elena now.”

“Oh, come on. He couldn’t care less about Elena, and I’d stake my next paycheck that the only thing she wants from him is a closet full of Prada and Chanel. He’s still crazy about you.”

“Lizzy—”

“How on earth did you miss all the signs last week at Rosings? He couldn’t stop staring at you, he looked miserable with Elena on his arm, and he wanted to knock Jordan out cold with that bizarre wood carving in the hallway.”

Jane, who had been gazing at the wisp of steam just beginning to emerge from the kettle, smiled in spite of herself. “The one that was either a giraffe or a palm tree, but we weren’t sure which?”

“Right.” Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled. “I swear, I saw Charles staring at it, and then at Jordan, with an evil look in his eye.”

Laughing, Jane fetched two mugs from the cabinet and set them on the counter. “Thanks for cheering me up. Isn’t it funny how we’re so sure about each other’s love lives, but so uncertain about our own?”

“Good thing we have each other, or we’d be completely hopeless.”

 

The following evening, the clock in William’s library chimed ten times, breaking the silence in the penthouse. Elizabeth heard the muffled sound from the living room, where she and William sat close together on the sofa, tending to their respective responsibilities. Or, at least, Elizabeth was tending to her responsibilities. She had made her way through a sheaf of papers, and was now frowning at the laptop computer balanced on her knees.

William had ostensibly spent the evening reviewing paperwork from Sonya, but Elizabeth knew that she had claimed much more of his attention than had the contracts and letters. She had enjoyed the quiet intimacy they shared, and the way he had occasionally caressed her arm or toyed with a lock of her hair. It had distracted her somewhat from her work, but she could hardly complain about so pleasant a distraction.

“I heard that Charles Bingley was coming up for Char’s birthday party,” she remarked.

William nodded. “I invited him to stay here for the weekend.”

“Sounds dangerous,” she teased. “A swinging bachelor pad and two hot bachelors.”

“Two?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Okay. One who’s hot, and one who’s kind of warm-ish. But now you’re going to have to figure out who’s who.”

He grinned, but his smile faded fast. “I’m afraid it means that we won’t see much of each other this weekend. I’m sorry. I’d been hoping we could try out that drive-in movie theater.”

“Don’t worry; we’ll get there eventually.”

Elizabeth was disappointed that William wasn’t anticipating a reconciliation for Jane and Charles, since in that case Charles could have been expected to spend most of his free time with Jane. Maybe we could have double-dated. That would have been fun.

She deposited the laptop on the coffee table, stretched, and rolled her head in a slow circle, her muscles stiff from hunching over the computer. William reached over and began to massage her neck and shoulders with his strong hands. When he brushed her hair aside and pressed his warm lips to the back of her neck, she barely suppressed a moan. Afraid of what she might do if he continued, she jumped to her feet.

“The music ended,” she explained awkwardly. “I’ll put on another CD.”

He stared at her in speculative silence for a moment, but when he spoke he didn’t mention her frantic leap from the sofa, as she feared he might. “I have a wonderful recording of Don Giovanni, if you’re interested.”

She crossed the room and inspected his CD collection. “Not right now. I was thinking of some Bill Evans … or maybe even some William Darcy.”

“You can have all the William Darcy you want, but you’ll have to come over here to get it.”

Elizabeth whirled to face him as he lounged on the sofa like a sultan, a suggestive gleam in his eyes. “You, sir, are bad.”

“No, I’m good,” he replied softly, raising his eyebrows in such a way as to leave no question of his meaning.

He was ordinarily so proper that his occasional bold remarks had the power to unsettle her. She did her best not to blush, responding in as breezy a tone as she could manage, “If you do say so yourself.”

“I’d be pleased to offer a demonstration.”

But you can’t. Not right now. Your doctor said you shouldn’t. At least, I think so. And it’s just as well, because I’m not ready either. She dreaded the idea that she might ruin that momentous occasion with a sudden onslaught of panic, and she intended to master her fears before allowing their relationship to advance to that level.

She turned away and resumed her inspection of his CDs, feeling his eyes burning into her from across the room. Finally she grabbed a jazz CD at random and loaded it into the player. As she turned back to face William, the plaintive strains of John Coltrane’s saxophone filled the room.

“Excellent choice. Coltrane for Lovers, isn’t it?”

She hadn’t noticed the title, at least, not unless her subconscious had made the selection.

He rose to his feet. “Would you do me the great honor of dancing with me, Ms. Bennet?”

She stepped into his arms, and they began to move together to the music.

“I must say, I’d enjoy working in the evenings a lot more if they all ended with a man asking me to dance, especially a man as handsome as you.”

“Why, thank you, ma’am.”

They fell silent after that, her head resting on his shoulder. She had always noticed that they danced well together, their bodies attuned to each other’s movements and rhythms. I wonder if it will be that way when we … She shivered, overwhelmed by the image provoked by this unbidden thought.

“Are you okay?” He tightened his arms around her.

She tilted her head up to meet his concerned gaze. “I’m fine.”

He lowered his head to hers and their mouths met in a soft kiss that was followed by another, and then another, and still another. They nipped and brushed each other’s lips playfully, tasting each other only fleetingly. Soon, though, passion overtook play, and they abandoned all pretense of dancing, clinging helplessly to eacn other, their mouths fused together in a hungry contest of exploration and surrender.

A deep groan rumbled through William’s chest and his hands strayed down her back, grasping her hips and molding her tightly against him. She felt his insistent arousal pressing against her belly, and even as she melted against him, she realized with an odd mixture of regret and relief that they’d have to stop soon.

Despite her fervent desire that William regain his full health, Elizabeth had discovered at least one positive facet to the doctor’s restriction on William’s amorous activities. She could be less inhibited, and more apt to let passion sweep her away—at least up to a point—without worrying that her ardor would provoke overzealous advances on his part. Although she doubted that William would agree, for her it was a blessing in disguise, giving her the time she needed to grow more comfortable with intimacy.

She twined her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, allowing herself to express some measure of the profound desire she felt, and delighting in the shudder that vibrated through him in urgent response. He began to take small backward steps, drawing her along with him, until he dropped onto the sofa, pulling her down with him so that she sat sideways across his lap. “I’ve wanted to have you sitting here like this all night,” he whispered in her ear, nibbling the sensitive lobe while little sparks zipped through her body.

“Somehow I don’t think I would have gotten much work done,” she said softly, smoothing his hair with one hand, her other arm around his neck.

“Do you still need to work? Not that I’m going to let you go, no matter what you say.”

“Is that so?” She eyed him in only a half-hearted challenge. “Well, as it happens, I’ve done enough for tonight.”

“Enough work, you mean,” he replied, a hint of mischief in his eyes. “I could name one or two things that you haven’t done anywhere near enough of.” Apparently intent on correcting that inequity, he buried one hand in her hair and drew her face to his for a long, deep kiss.

Some time later, she heard the clock strike the half hour, and she pulled her lips away from his. “It’s getting late,” she gasped.

“It’s only 10:30.” His words were muffled because his lips were tracing a slow, insistent path of fire along her jaw.

She tried to pull away, but she couldn’t find the will. Instead she spoke plaintively. “My first class is at eight tomorrow morning, and my last one doesn’t end till ten at night. I need a good night’s sleep or I’ll never survive.”

He was busy nibbling her neck, and she felt little flames of desire licking at her. “You could stay here,” he murmured hotly. “Just say the word, and we can go to bed right now.”

His breathing was rapid and shallow, and she could feel his heart racing in his chest. She pulled away in earnest, feeling a tinge of fear. “No, we can’t. You know that.”

“I meant that we could sleep together, literally,” he explained, a breathless edge to his voice. “I know that the rest is off limits right now.” He paused, looking deep into her eyes, his hand smoothing her hair. “But I’d love to fall asleep with you in my arms.”

She was tempted to succumb to the gentle plea in his dark eyes, but she shook her head reluctantly. “Some day, I’d like that. But tonight I think I’d better go home.”

She extricated herself from his embrace and rose unsteadily to her feet. Clearly, based on his “off limits” comment, she had correctly understood the situation with the doctor. But she didn’t trust William—or herself, to be honest—to resist the temptation posed by a night spent in his bed. And if something happened to him, I’d hate myself.

She packed her briefcase and went to the kitchen to retrieve her purse, William following in her wake.

“Before you go,” he said, “I have a present for you. I meant to give it to you during dinner, but we got talking about other things and I forgot.”

He lifted a medium-sized box from the counter and handed it to her. She opened the lid to find another box inside, this one marked with the brand of a prominent cellular telephone company. She frowned at him in confusion, opened the second box, and found a cell phone inside, along with a set of accessories.

“I don’t understand,” she said slowly, though she suspected that she did.

“You didn’t have a cell phone. Now you do. It’s all paid for: the phone, and two years of service with plenty of minutes. I even charged the battery this afternoon.” He was beaming like a small boy who had just accomplished an amazing feat.

She hated to deflate his enthusiasm, but she had no choice. “William, that’s so sweet of you, but I can’t accept it.”

“Why not? Since when can’t a man buy presents for his girlfriend?”

“But …” She struggled to explain. “It’s the type of present. If you tried to make my car payment or pay my rent, you’d understand why I wouldn’t let you, right?”

“If you didn’t have enough money for those things, I hope you’d accept my help.”

“But you wouldn’t offer them as gifts out of the blue, right? You’d only consider making an offer like that if you knew I really needed it.”

“All right, yes.” He sounded impatient.

“Okay. So we understand each other on that point. Well, to me, a cell phone is pretty much in the same category. It’s the sort of thing that, if I need one, I ought to pay for it myself.”

“But I don’t like the idea of you driving alone at night without a phone. I worry about you. And also, if you had a cell phone, it’d be easier for me to … for us to reach each other.”

“I understand. But it feels basically the same as if you offered to pay my regular phone bill.”

He folded his arms over his chest, lines of tension evident on his face. “Why do you have to make everything so difficult? Why can’t you just take the phone and thank me, like any other woman in the world would do?”

“Maybe you should find one of those other women, since apparently you’d be much happier with one of them.”

“I didn’t say that.” His lips were pressed tightly together as he glared at her.

She was about to snatch her purse off the table and stalk out the door, grateful that her car was parked downstairs so that she could escape this spoiled, willful child living in a man’s body. But as she turned to go, she saw something in his eyes that made her take a closer look. His anger was only a thin veneer at the surface. Beneath it she saw that he was hurt, and she forced herself to calm down and consider the situation from his point of view.

This was the first gift he’d given her, aside from his various floral offerings, and she had rejected it. Further, based on the reasons he’d offered for buying it, he hoped it would help them to grow closer as a couple. Perhaps it seemed as though her rejection extended to that idea as well. And he’s probably right that every other woman he knows would just take it with thanks and not make a fuss. But not me.

Elizabeth had always, even as a small child, protected her independence with fierce determination. During her years as a not-quite-starving actress in New York, she had refused help from her father, her grandmother, and even Jane. Now that she had achieved a measure of financial security, her pride was no longer as vulnerable, but there were other reasons to be wary. William, with his almost limitless wealth, could easily go overboard if not checked early and often. This is just the thin end of the wedge. First, it’s the phone. Next he’ll think my car isn’t reliable enough and he’ll want to buy me a new one. Then he’ll want to get me my own apartment, away from Jane, so he and I can be alone there. And I’ll feel like a kept woman. She took a deep breath and made her decision.

He was still standing in the same position, looking tall and forbidding as he watched her in wary silence. She stepped close to him, moving slowly to see if he would retreat, but he stood his ground.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’d hate it if you found some other woman.” She ran her hands along his arms, which were still crossed over his chest.

After a moment, his eyes flickered and he uncrossed his arms. His hands came to rest on her waist, and he drew her body into light contact with his. “I don’t have the slightest interest in other women,” he replied gruffly. “I haven’t since the day we met.” She saw warmth creeping into his eyes. “And besides, what I like best about you is that you aren’t like every other woman, no matter how maddening that can be sometimes.”

She smiled and stroked his cheek. “Be careful what you wish for, huh?”

He nodded, chuckling softly. “Exactly.” Bending his head, he kissed her gently.

Having soothed his wounded ego, she next embarked on the trickier part of her plan. “Now, about the phone. Did Sonya ever get you a new one? You said you were going to ask her to, because of the voicemail fiasco.”

“Not yet. She wanted to do some investigating first.”

“Well, in that case, why don’t you take this phone for yourself? And I’ll go out tomorrow and get one of my own. I like the idea that it’ll be easier for us to stay in touch. And if it’ll help you not to worry so much, that’s a good thing too.”

“Why not just take this one?” His brow was furrowed in a small scowl.

“Because I’m one of the most annoyingly independent women you’ll ever meet, not to mention the most stubborn. And it’s important to me to do this for myself.”

He shook his head ruefully. “Okay, you win.”

“I don’t suppose I’ll hear you say that too often,” she retorted with a smile. “Walk me to my car?”

“Try to stop me.”

She allowed him the small victory of carrying her briefcase, refraining from pointing out that since she had toted it up to the penthouse, she was obviously capable of handling it herself. By the time they were done exchanging a leisurely goodnight kiss in the parking area beneath William’s building, the intimate warmth of the evening had been restored.