Elizabeth drove up the steep hill to her condo building as quickly as the Honda’s engine would propel her.As she approached the gated entrance to the parking area, she gazed longingly at Buena Vista Park across the street. Most Fridays when she got home from the conservatory, she treated herself to at least a brief stroll in the park, enjoying its winding pathways and the dizzying views of the city below. But there wasn’t time. She parked her car and hurried through the courtyard to the party room.

Their building had once been a hospital, and the party room was the former chapel. The pews had been removed, but the lofty ceiling, the balcony, and the stained glass windows survived. The former altar area was now used as a raised stage, its sheep-and-shepherd wood carvings a pointed reminder of the structure’s history.

Elizabeth found Jane in the kitchen attached to the party room, a baking sheet full of cookies in her hand.

“There you are!” Jane’s smile held a measure of relief. “Your meeting ran long, I guess?”

“It sure did. Catherine de Bourgh wouldn’t stop pontificating. But I picked up the fruit and veggie platters. They’re on the table against the far wall.”

“Thanks, Lizzy. That’s a big help.”

“Everything looks wonderful, as usual.” Elizabeth sighed. “You’re the perfect hostess.”

“Thank you, but, really, Kitty was a big help. She deserves most of the credit.”

“I doubt that, but I’m glad she filled in for me; I’ve done pretty much useless. What would you like me to do right now?”

“Just one thing. When is the cake supposed to arrive?”

“It’s not here yet? They promised they’d deliver it no later than five.” It was almost seven thirty.

Jane shook her head. “We haven’t seen or heard from them. Could you call them?”

Elizabeth hurried up to their condo and called the bakery while shedding her clothes. It was getting late, and she wanted to take a quick shower before the party.

“Oh, Ms. Bennet, thank goodness,” the manager sighed. “We’ve been trying to reach you, but apparently we don’t have your correct phone number. The delivery van was in a small accident this afternoon, and I’m afraid your cake was ruined.”

“Oh, dear. I hope no one was hurt.”

“The driver has a few bumps and bruises, but nothing serious.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I suppose it’s too late to bake a new cake?” This was a disappointment; she had been proud of her idea for the cake’s decorations.

“We’re working on a replacement right now, and it should be ready in less than an hour. But because of the accident, we don’t have a van or a driver available. I’d deliver it myself, but I have five other rush orders that we’re also re-doing. Is there any chance you could pick up the cake?”

She didn’t have time, but there wasn’t any alternative. “Sure. No problem.”

“Thank you so much. We’ll refund part of the cost of the cake, to apologize for the inconvenience.”

So much for taking a shower. But it couldn’t be helped, and there was no point in sulking about it. Then a simple solution occurred to her. She called William, who agreed to pick up the cake.

She rushed through her shower and then, swathed in a large bath towel, went to work on her hair. I sure hope the cake is worth all this trouble. But Char has been so stressed out lately about her dissertation, it’ll be good to poke a little fun at it.

Elizabeth inspected her hair in the mirror. Not bad. She rooted through her lingerie drawer until she found her strapless bra, and then carefully pulled her new floral print top over her head. Like her pink sweater last Monday, it left her shoulders bare, but this top had short sleeves and was smocked, its stretchy contours clinging to her body. Her eyes fell on her bottle of jasmine-vanilla scented moisturizer, and she spread a thin layer of the lotion on her neck and shoulders, a warm light in her eyes as she imagined William’s hands and lips caressing her there. Then she stepped into a pair of snug jeans and slipped her feet into high-heeled strappy sandals.

As she peered in the mirror, sparingly applying make-up, she laughed at herself. All these years I thought I was more sensible than other girls, that I’d escaped the primping gene.

Ready at last, she grabbed Charlotte’s gift and her keys and dashed out of the apartment, nearly tripping on the throw rug near the front door in her haste. Elegant and refined. Mr. Darcy would be so impressed. But if he wanted someone elegant and refined, he wouldn’t be with me. Her eyes alive with amusement and anticipation, she locked the door behind her and sprinted down the hall.

 

By the time Elizabeth arrived downstairs, the party guests had begun to trickle in. Charlotte, looking effortlessly elegant in an animal-print silk blouse and sleek black slacks, stood near the bar talking to some people Elizabeth didn’t recognize.

“Hey, Liz. You look great. And from the sparkle in your eye, I guess I don’t need to ask if William’s going to be here.”

Elizabeth grinned ruefully. “As a matter of fact, he’s bringing your birthday cake.”

“Aha. Jane said it was an unusual cake, but that’s all she’d tell me.” Charlotte’s glance flicked to the door, where more guests were arriving. “Oh, it’s Rudy and Vanessa! Excuse me for a minute; I need to find out about their trip to Alaska.”

Elizabeth made her way across the room to Jane, who was chatting with Roger Stonefield.

“Hi, sweetie.” Roger leaned over to kiss Elizabeth’s cheek. “You look beautiful. And you smell good too.”

“Thanks, Roger. You’re looking pretty good yourself.”

It was true. Although Roger couldn’t compare to William in looks or magnetism, he was tall and athletically built with strong drummer’s arms, piercing blue eyes, and a perennial smile. In the few months of their acquaintance, he and Elizabeth had developed a warm friendship.

“You and Jane did a great job pulling this together,” he remarked, scanning the rapidly-filling room.

“Mostly Jane, not me.”

“That’s not true,” Jane said. “You and Kitty did a lot.” She turned to Roger. “And you and the other guys helped too. It was a team effort.” She turned in the direction of the self-service bar and frowned. “I think I’d better go help open that wine bottle before the cork ends up in a hundred pieces. Excuse me.” She hurried off.

Elizabeth grinned at Roger. “Like I said, Jane is mostly responsible for this party.”

“Where’s Darcy? Charlotte says you two are pretty much inseparable these days.”

“I don’t know if I’d say that. But he should be here soon. I asked him to run an errand on his way over.”

 

The man behind the bakery counter offered William a bright smile. “May I help you?”

“Yes,” William replied briskly, trying to ignore the appreciative light in the clerk’s eyes. “I’m here to pick up a cake.”

“What’s the name?”

“Bennet.”

The employee checked a shelving unit holding a few large bakery boxes. “Bennet … Bennet … ah, here it is. Oh, yes, this was one of the cakes we had to re-bake because of the delivery van accident.” The man peeked into the box, and he licked his lips. “Mmmm. Delicious.” He flipped the box open with a flourish. “Don’t you just love it?”

William goggled at the cake, trying to cover up a gasp with a feigned coughing fit. It was shaped like a large, and disturbingly anatomically correct, male appendage. My Lizzy, who’s so shy about sex, ordered this cake?

“It’s chocolate, of course. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat?” the bakery employee enthused, with a smile that was too suggestive to be ignored.

A flush of intense embarrassment enveloped William’s body. He inspected the cake again, more as a defense against making eye contact with the man than anything else, but as he absorbed more of the details of the cake his discomfort only increased. “And you’re sure that this is the cake for Bennet?”

“Isn’t it what you ordered?”

“It’s just that … that …” William paused, silently ordering himself to stop stammering. “I’m not the one who placed the order, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

The man checked the shelf again. “It’s the only order we have here for Bennet. Looks like it’ll be a lively party.”

William was either imagining things, or the man had just given him a sly wink. Either way, he was fairly certain that he had never been so mortified in his life. He could hardly blame the man for assuming that he was gay, and he felt a stab of annoyance at Elizabeth for sending him into the lion’s den without at least a warning. He attempted to gather the tattered shreds of his dignity. “Yes, well, how much do I owe you?”

“Let’s see.” The man checked the sales slip attached to the box. “After the discount the manager deducted because of the problems today, ten dollars.”

William proffered his American Express platinum card. The man accepted the card, glanced at it, and then looked up, a quizzical expression on his face.

“William Darcy. I know that name.”

“It’s a common name,” William said in a dismissive tone, silently castigating himself for not paying cash.

“Sure, I’ve got it now! I thought you looked familiar. You’re a musician, right? A pianist.”

Perfect. Just perfect. But it seemed pointless to lie. “Yes.”

“How about that!” The man extended his hand. “My name’s Jess. My partner is a fan of yours.”

William shook hands reluctantly, and Jess began to babble. “You were in some magazine—Time or Newsweek—a few months ago, right? Scott saved that issue; it’s still on the coffee table. He’ll be excited to hear that I met you; wait till he hears that you’re living in San Francisco now.”

“I’m not.” William didn’t intend to provide any further information.

“Oh, just visiting? Well, if you’re looking for a place to hang out while you’re in town, to meet some really great guys—”

“That won’t be necessary.” William wanted to correct Jess’s assumption, but he couldn’t imagine any dignified way to discuss his sexual orientation with a stranger. Then, as he retreated behind his familiar wall of hauteur, an idea occurred to him. “I’m in a hurry; my girlfriend is waiting for me. So if you could get the charge taken care of … ”

Jess didn’t seem to notice the extra emphasis on the words, “my girlfriend.” He simply shook his head, handing back the credit card. “It’s on the house. It’s not every day we get a celebrity in here picking up one of our special cakes.”

William smiled weakly, grabbed the box, and escaped the store.

 

Elizabeth felt a little thrill when she saw the familiar head of dark, wavy hair towering above a group of guests near the doorway. She hurried to the door to greet him. As she drew closer, she saw that his eyes were cool, his carriage regal and stiff as he scanned the room. She fought back a sharp wave of anger. Not this again. He can’t have much respect for me if he’s so disdainful of my friends.

His expression softened slightly when he saw her, though he remained cloaked in haughty reserve. She advanced toward him, doing her best to hide her annoyance.

“Hi, William. Welcome to the party.”

He nodded and held out a large white cardboard box, his features twisted into a peculiar expression of distaste. “I picked up the cake.”

“I’m surprised you’re here already—I thought you might have to wait while they finished it.” She took the box from his hands, smiling her thanks. “I really appreciate it.”

He hesitated, his brow lowered, his lips pressed together. “Elizabeth … are you sure … that is, did you …”

It was even worse than she had feared. He had retreated to the formality of calling her Elizabeth. “What isit?”

“The cake. It’s … unorthodox. Who chose it?”

She smiled smugly. The bakery she had chosen specialized in portrait cakes. She had ordered a cake decorated with a reproduction in frosting of the self-portrait of Judith Leyster, one of Charlotte’s beloved 17th-century Dutch female painters. But in this version of the portrait, Judith would be wearing a handlebar moustache and a goatee.

“The cake was my idea. Isn’t Char going to love it?”

“I don’t know her well enough to answer that, but it seems rather …” His voice trailed off and he shrugged.

She had learned to accept that he could be stuffy at times, but to be so bothered by the whimsical defacement of a frosting rendering of a 350-year-old painting seemed absurd. Her voice took on a defensive tone as she said, “I think it’s the perfect choice for Char. It’s funny, and it sums up the way she’s been spending the vast majority of her time lately.”

He blanched, and for a moment he didn’t speak. “I see.”

“In fact, Jane and I thought about building the whole theme of the party around the cake—decorations, costumes, maybe even a game along the lines of ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’—but we decided that might be a bit much.”

His disdainful expression deepened. “Yes, I would certainly think so. But perhaps you know Charlotte and her friends better than I do.”

His superior tone annoyed her; apparently he was too exalted for some good-natured fun. Again, she swallowed her exasperation. “I’m going to go hide the cake; I want it to be a surprise later when we bring it out. Why don’t you go say hello to Char, and I’ll join you in a minute.”

William did as she suggested while she headed in the direction of the kitchen with the bakery box. She was about to peek under the lid, curious to see how the cake had turned out, when someone grabbed her arm and she heard a loud shriek in her ear.

“Surprise!”

She whirled, nearly dropping the box, and saw Lydia, with Kitty at her side.

“Lydia, what are you doing here?”

“She was sitting on my doorstep, literally, when I went home to change,” Kitty explained. “So I invited her to the party.”

“I was bored to death in LA, so I skipped out on my job and hopped a plane. I thought I’d see how much trouble Kitty and I could get into this weekend.”

“How could you afford the plane fare?” Elizabeth asked, setting the bakery box on a nearby table. Lydia’s on-again, off-again work habits left her with perennially empty pockets.

“Oh, I’ve got a credit card. And Mom will give me the money later.” Lydia scanned the room. “See, Kitty, I told you; everybody here is so old. Dullsville.”

“Why, thank you,” Elizabeth snapped.

Lydia laughed with her peculiar hyena-like abandon. “Well, don’t feel bad. It’s not as though you can help it. How old are you by now, 30?”

“I’m 26,” Elizabeth replied tartly.

“Close enough. Still, you look good tonight, Lizzy. Even showing a teensy bit of skin, though you could do with plenty more. Why don’t you yank down that neckline and really show what you’ve got?” Lydia adjusted her v-neck tank top to afford the maximum possible display of cleavage. “Anyway, c’mon, Kitty. Let’s get something to drink.”

As Lydia turned to go, she spotted William conversing with Charlotte a short distance away, and her eyes widened. “Ooh, it’s that hunk from Jane’s wedding weekend. He’s even hotter than I remembered. Nice broad shoulders and that fabulous tight butt. Boy, would I like to check out what else he’s got.”

“Lydia, lower your voice.” The last thing Elizabeth needed was for William to hear Lydia speculating about his anatomy. But her eyes dropped to his rear end, and she couldn’t disagree with Lydia’s assessment.

Kitty leaned over to Lydia and whispered something that dissolved them both into giggles. Lydia’s astonished gaze swept from Elizabeth to William and back again.

“That gorgeous guy is your boyfriend, Lizzy? Way to go! It took you long enough, but once you landed one, you really hit the jackpot. A major hottie with a huge bank balance, and probably a huge—”

“Lydia!”

Elizabeth glanced at William, mortified. He wasn’t looking directly at them, but she could see the muscles in his jaw working, and she was certain that he’d heard Lydia’s crude remark. Then he glanced in their direction, and Elizabeth’s humiliation was complete when Lydia winked at him suggestively. He looked away immediately, his expression betraying his obvious distaste.

Elizabeth planted her hands on her hips and glared at Lydia. “Why do you have to act like such a … a slut?” she whispered fiercely. Elizabeth tried to love her youngest sister, but her wild, reckless behavior, especially where men were concerned, made it a challenge.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Lydia replied carelessly, waving her hands in a dismissive gesture. “I’m not going to steal him from you. I’m happy for you, really. It’s about time you got some.”

Elizabeth bristled at Lydia’s assumption that she could steal William if she chose to do so. “Excuse me,” she muttered, stalking away from her sisters to join Charlotte and William. The warning look in Charlotte’s eyes confirmed that Lydia’s voice had been audible, and she decided that it would be best to address the matter head on.

“William, you must have heard what Lydia said. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” he answered stiffly.

“She’s—well, she’s young, and she’s wild. She was always my mother’s favorite, aside from Jane, and Mom pretty much let her do whatever she wanted.”

“Besides,” Charlotte added, with a sympathetic glance at Elizabeth, “most of what Lydia says is just for shock value. She’s not nearly as worldly as she’d like for people to believe.”

William grunted, his eyes on Kitty and Lydia at the bar, gulping bottles of beer and laughing noisily. His expression was unreadable as he turned to Elizabeth. “Charlotte was just telling me that she’s hoping to finish her dissertation in the spring.”

Charlotte nodded eagerly, obviously doing her best to encourage this abrupt change of subject. “By this time next year, I hope to be torturing an unsuspecting generation of undergrads in art history classes.”

“Any idea where you’d like to teach?”

“Somewhere in or near a large city. NYU or Columbia would be great, or maybe UCLA.”

“Be sure to have Lizzy keep me informed. If you’re ever in New York for an interview, perhaps we could meet for lunch.”

Elizabeth listened while William and Charlotte continued their relaxed conversation. It had been the same at the rehearsal dinner; for whatever reason, William dropped his distant hauteur when speaking to Charlotte. It made Elizabeth vaguely uncomfortable to think of the two of them meeting for lunch in New York in the future, once he had left San Francisco, and her, behind. He likes her, and heaven knows she thinks he’s sex on a stick. If they were both in New York …

“How’s the birthday girl?” It was Jane, standing at Charlotte’s elbow.

“Just great,” Charlotte answered cheerfully.

“Hi, William.” Jane smiled at him. “It’s good to see you again. Thank you so much for helping with the cake.”

“Good evening, Jane. I’m glad I could be of assistance.”

As though someone had flicked a switch inside of William, his manner had become stiff and formal, his voice polite but distinctly cool. Elizabeth pressed her lips tightly together, her frustration and annoyance about to boil over. But she didn’t want to make a public scene, so she swallowed the bile rising in her throat.

Jane didn’t seem to notice the tension in the group. Her eyes flicked away from them, toward the door. “Would you please excuse me?”

Elizabeth glanced toward the door and saw Jordan, the handsome blond man from the party at Rosings, sauntering into the room.

“Where’s Charles Bingley?” Charlotte asked. “I thought he was going to be here.”

William’s eyes were on Jane and Jordan, and he answered somewhat absently. “I don’t know what’s keeping him.”

“I thought he’d be coming with you,” Elizabeth remarked.

“No, he said he’d meet me here. He’s not staying with me this weekend after all. Caroline guilted him into staying at her place.”

“There’s no chance she’ll invite herself along to the party, is there?” The thought horrified Elizabeth. Lydia’s presence, William’s attitude, and Charles’s pending arrival were more than sufficient sources of stress.

Charlotte snorted. “She wouldn’t be caught dead at a gathering of the hoi polloi. Besides, when I met her at the rehearsal dinner, we had only two things in common: our height and our instant mutual dislike. I can’t imagine that she’d be tempted to crash my birthday party.”

“Char calls her ‘Cruella de Bingley,’” Elizabeth explained, giving William a tentative smile.

“Good name,” he snickered, smiling back at her. A flicker of warmth passed between them, and for the first time she noticed how handsome he looked in his crisp white shirt and flawlessly tailored charcoal gray slacks. Her smile widened, and she felt herself beginning to relax.

“Elizabeth, there you are! You look positively ravishing. And Charlotte, happy birthday! And Mr. Darcy as well; what a surprise. Good evening, sir.”

It was Bill Collins, who had been invited along with the rest of Golden Gate Jazz. Although his greeting had included all three of them, his admiring smile was directed solely at Elizabeth. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the muscles in William’s jaw tighten, and she could almost feel the temperature in their little circle grow frosty. Across the room, Lydia’s wild laugh rang out, and she couldn’t suppress a deep sigh.

 

William stood facing the stained glass windows, inspecting them at close range, his back to his fellow party guests. The best thing he could say about the evening so far was that there had been one or two pleasant moments. Brief ones.

Despite some initial awkwardness due to Elizabeth’s indiscreet remark about Charlotte’s recent activities, he had enjoyed his conversation with Charlotte. Her manner put him at ease, perhaps because she reminded him somewhat of Richard. He saw the wisdom in being on good terms with those who were closest to Elizabeth, and in this case his best interests and his inclinations coincided. If only that were true of Jane.

Roger Stonefield had sought William out and had engaged him in an enjoyable conversation about music, supplying the evening’s other bright spot. They had discovered similar tastes in jazz music, and Roger had proposed that the four of them—William, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and himself—visit one of the city’s jazz clubs some time in the near future. William, who couldn’t ever recall double dating in his life, had been astonished to hear himself endorsing the idea.

Aside from those two brief intervals, there had been little about the party to enjoy. He was the outsider, a stranger among people who were too busy talking and laughing together to take any interest in him. To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s obnoxious sister Lydia was hanging about leering at him. Never before had he met a woman whose eyes crawled over him with such lascivious intent, nor one whose pointed stare seemed so likely to eventually burn a hole in his trousers.

He had overheard a distasteful conversation between Kitty and Lydia, spoken in “confidential” tones that had been clearly audible where William stood, temporarily alone while Elizabeth rearranged a precarious stack of birthday gifts on a corner table.

“You know,” Lydia had said, “Mom still hasn’t given up on one of us marrying a rich man. She’s starting to accept that Jane blew her chance with Charles … but who knows, he’s supposedly coming tonight. Maybe it’s not too late.”

“But she has a date tonight with that guy, Jordan.”

“Yeah, and he’s kind of a babe. But wouldn’t you ditch him for another chance at the Bingley millions? Unless he’s rich too, of course. Otherwise, I’m sure Jane only invited him to make Charles jealous so he’d want her back.”

“Jane wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh, c’mon, we’re talking piles of cash here. I think she’d …”

Raucous laughter from across the room drowned out the rest of Lydia’s sentence. When William could hear them again, Kitty was talking about him.

“ … ten times more money than Charles, and Jane says he and Lizzy are seeing a lot of each other.”

Lydia snorted. “It’ll never last. I’m betting he’s a volcano under that cold surface, just waiting to erupt. He’s not going to be satisfied with a prude like Lizzy.”

“So why don’t you go after him yourself?” Kitty giggled.

“It’s tempting. But only for a fling; I don’t want to settle down. Once I’m a famous actress, I’m going to spend my nights throwing wild Hollywood parties, and my days either shopping or locked in the pool house … with the pool boy, of course. C’mon, let’s get something to eat.”

William had heaved a disgusted sigh as they crossed the room, clutching each other’s arms and giggling.

Bill Collins had been another continual irritant, following Elizabeth around like a faithful lapdog until William’s teeth were in danger of being ground down to stumps. Elizabeth refused to fend Bill off, instead treating him with indulgent courtesy. I wish she were being that nice to me.

That was the worst part. There was something the matter with Elizabeth. She seemed angry with him, but he had no idea why. She exuded defiance, as though daring him to cross a line in the sand, yet the line was invisible, leaving him afraid to move in any direction. What had happened to turn the tide so rapidly was a mystery, and in this crowded, noisy atmosphere there had been no opportunity to delve into it further.

And presently, taking her someplace quieter was out of the question, because Elizabeth was preparing to perform for the guests. She and the rest of Golden Gate Jazz had been waiting for Charles so that he could perform with them, but the evening was passing rapidly and no one was sure when, or even if, Charles would appear.

William watched the musicians huddled together, undoubtedly discussing their play list. His gaze rested on Elizabeth, taking in her delicate profile and the soft, abundant curls spilling over her bare shoulders. She looked feminine and sweet, yet devastatingly sexy. No other woman at the party—no other woman in the world—could look so innocent and so tempting at the same time, and as always, William was gripped by warring urges. On one hand, he longed to cherish her, to shelter her from harm. On the other, he ached to ravish her, to possess the body that haunted his dreams. Which means that, first and foremost, I need to protect her from … me.

His hunger had only grown worse with the doctor’s restriction on sex. The intense dreams he had experienced after meeting Elizabeth last May had returned with a vengeance. Out of sheer desperation, he might have been tempted to defy the doctor’s orders, but for two problems.

First, what if the doctor was right, and he were to suffer an attack of some sort while in bed with Elizabeth? He found it unimaginable that he would die or suffer any serious harm, but she would blame herself if anything happened to him. He loved her too dearly to risk causing her that kind of pain.

Second, he was genuinely striving to take the physical side of their relationship slowly, as he had promised. He was determined to let her lead the way even if it killed him, which didn’t seem entirely out of the question. On more than one occasion this week while holding her in his arms and trying to control his passion, he had half expected himself to spontaneously combust.

He was beginning to wonder if he might be holding back too much, if perhaps she would welcome more intimate caresses. The cake she had chosen for her friend’s birthday party showed surprising boldness about sexual matters, yet she had seemed genuinely shocked by his ill-fated suggestion, two evenings ago, that she spend the night with him. He shook his head in utter bewilderment. Is she just being a tease, sending me mixed signals to keep me titillated? A voice in his head denied this assertion emphatically. Of course not. Lizzy isn’t like that.

But she sent me to get that cake. A man in my position, in such an undignified situation … I would never have thought she’d do that to me. William shook his head slowly, completely bewildered.

He was grateful that at least she was unaware of the doctor’s restriction. He felt humiliated and unmanned, as though he were a eunuch, except of course that a eunuch wouldn’t suffer from a nearly continual dull ache in his groin, the result of too-frequent arousal without relief. Out of desperation, William occasionally sought release in the only way available to him, his eyes closed tightly as he imagined Elizabeth kissing him, touching him, loving him. But afterwards he felt empty and hollow, and often more frustrated than before. He had begun to wonder if he would be better off avoiding intimate interludes with Elizabeth altogether, since he invariably paid for the temporary pleasure of holding her with hours of frustration afterwards.

Sighing loudly, William wandered to the bar to refill his wine glass. As he left the bar, he saw Charles step through the doorway and glance around anxiously. Charles’s eyes fell on William, and his face brightened.

William approached him, his hand outstretched. He was genuinely glad to see Charles, though he felt it had been a mistake for his friend to come to the party. Charles’s excuse for attending was the chance to see, and play a reunion set with, the members of Golden Gate Jazz, but William knew that Charles had really come to San Francisco to see Jane.

“You got here just in time,” William said. “They’re getting ready to play.” He inclined his head in the direction of the instrument case Charles carried. “Why don’t you unpack your saxophone and join them?”

William heard Charles inhale sharply, and knew that he had just seen Jane across the room, her back to them. Unfortunately, her date picked that precise moment to drape his arm casually around her shoulders. Charles stood completely still, his eyes locked on Jane. William repeated his suggestion in a sympathetic tone, but Charles shook his head.

“I’ll just … watch for a while,” Charles said in a low voice, setting his instrument case on the floor beside him, his shoulders drooping. He still hadn’t looked away from Jane. “She’s with that guy?”

“I believe so.”

“Caroline told me that Jane had been dating a guy up here for a while, and that it was getting serious. I suppose this is him?”

William shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“But you could ask Lizzy.”

William didn’t respond at first, wondering what to say. He thought it inexcusable that Jane, despite knowing that Charles would be in attendance, had brought a date to the party. It was cruel and thoughtless first to reject him and then to rub salt in his still-fresh wounds. William knew how deeply it would lacerate his heart to see Elizabeth on the arm of another man.

“Charles …” Before William could continue, Charlotte spoke in a loud voice.

“Could I have your attention, please?” The crowd gradually grew quiet. “First, I’d like to thank you all for coming to my birthday party, and I promise not to spoil your fun by giving a long speech. I’ve got terrific friends who are hosting this shindig, and some of them are on the platform behind me right now getting ready to entertain you. So listen up and enjoy, and if you want to dance, go for it.”

Elizabeth stepped in front of the band, a sultry look in her eyes that William hadn’t seen there before. She nodded to the bass player, who began to pluck out a throbbing, syncopated introduction. Her gaze slowly slid over the audience, and just as she began to sing, William saw her raise a suggestive eyebrow at a man standing directly in front of her.

Naughty baby, naughty baby who will tease you,
I can show the way, I know the way to please you.
If you’re wanting a beginner, I shan’t do
I could make a saint a sinner when I want to

If you find the simple kind are rather slow, dear,
Then you ought to try a naughty one you know, dear.
But you’ll never meet another who will be
A naughty baby, naughty baby just like me.

William swallowed hard, a surge of lust ripping through his body. Before his eyes, she had transformed herself into the seductress of his heated dreams, with whom he had experienced volcanic passion. Yet he could only stand and watch, one of a dozen men who were all undressing her with their eyes. It was more than any red-blooded man could be expected to endure. Even a eunuch.

If you want a girl who’s sentimental,
One who’ll never set you in a whirl
One who will be always sweet and gentle
I am not that sort of girl

But if you prefer a rather swift one,
If you think you’d like to run around
With a bright one I am just the right one

The instrumentalists took temporary control of the song, featuring a clarinet solo and a showy part for Bill Collins on his electric keyboard, but William barely noticed them. His eyes were locked on her, helpless to look away. His hands began to tremble, and he jammed them in his pockets as anger welled up inside him. He was angry with himself for desiring her so fiercely, for needing her so desperately, for loving her with such all-consuming fervor. He was angry with her for being so bright and lively and sweet, yet so elusive and untouchable; for showing him tenderness and affection, yet holding back; for tempting him with displays of nascent passion, and then flitting just out of reach. And above all, he was angry with the universe for teasing him cruelly by revealing the sultry siren hidden inside her, leaving him burning to possess her, yet forbidden to do so.

Standing off to one side as he was, he was not in Elizabeth’s direct field of vision. She had not made eye contact with him, instead flirting madly with the men standing nearer the center of the crowd. But during the instrumental interlude, her eyes roved in William’s direction, finally coming to rest on him. He saw hesitation flicker across her face, which he suspected was provoked by the emotion that he knew must have blazed in his eyes. She gnawed her lip briefly, a tiny frown creasing her forehead, but she looked away as she began to sing again.

If you find the simple kind are rather slow, dear,
Then you ought to try a naughty one you know, dear.
But you’ll never meet another who will be
A naughty baby, naughty baby just like me.1

The crowd applauded loudly, many of the men contributing hoots of appreciation, but William stood completely still, his hands still in his pockets, his face frozen in an impassive mask that hid his seething frustration. She glanced again in his direction, and her bright smile slipped a notch.

“Lizzy is really something,” Charles remarked as the applause faded. “You’re a lucky guy.”

William exhaled loudly. “Indeed.”

“I’m going to go say hello to Jane. I don’t want her to think that …” Charles sighed. “Come with me, okay?”

The two men made their way to the center of room, where Jane and Jordan stood with Charlotte. As they approached, Jane noticed Charles, apparently for the first time that evening. She drew a quick breath and her eyes widened for a moment, but then a quiet smile spread across her face. Jane reminded William of the moon, serene and lovely to look at, but remote and dispassionate; she was entirely different from her spirited sister. It struck him that most of his past relationships had been with women more like Jane than Elizabeth. It’s no wonder she’s got me so tied up in knots. This is new to me.

“Hello, Charles.” Jane’s voice was as placid as her smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“Hi, Jane.” Charles looked and sounded cheerful, earning William’s respect for this show of courage. “You look beautiful tonight. Doesn’t she, Will?”

The question took William by surprise, and he stammered, “Ah, yes. Yes indeed.”

Jane introduced Jordan to William and Charles, and stiff handshakes and pleasantries were exchanged.

“Did you bring your saxophone?” Charlotte asked Charles. “The guys were starting to worry that you weren’t coming.”

“I left it over by the door. I haven’t played much since the … since May, so I’m bound to be rusty.”

“Oh, I bet it’s like riding a bike,” Jordan remarked in a breezy tone. “Once you know how, you never forget.”

“You’re quite mistaken,” William answered, annoyed that this ignorant man was trivializing the life of a musician. “It takes constant practice to maintain your skill level on an instrument.”

“And when it comes to practice, Will knows what he’s talking about,” Charles added, smiling. “He practices for hours every day.”

“Well, it certainly shows in his performances,” Jane said gently. “But I know Jordan didn’t mean to suggest that it’s easy to be a great musician, just that the basics stay with you once you master them. And I imagine that’s true, isn’t it?”

William was grudgingly impressed with Jane’s diplomatic handling of the brief dispute. He was beginning to understand what Charles had seen in her. She was the physical type that Charles preferred: tall, slender, blonde, and beautiful in a natural, athletic way. But now William saw that their temperaments were compatible as well. Charles hated conflict and went to great lengths to try to make everyone happy. His deceitful behavior regarding the pre-nuptial agreement had been an extreme example of this tendency. Jane apparently shared his preference for conflict avoidance. The placid manner that, in William’s opinion, made her rather bland would be endearing to Charles. He wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to handle a vibrant woman like Elizabeth.

And I do?

William let out a little snort that turned four pairs of eyes in his direction. He muttered an apology and shoved his hands into his pockets again. As their small talk resumed, William paid no attention to it, instead scanning the room in search of—

“How’s everybody doing?” He almost jumped when Elizabeth’s sweet voice rang out directly behind him.

Charles turned and flashed a bright smile. “Lizzy! You were wonderful as always. I got here just in time to hear you.”

She hugged Charles while William looked on, discontented. It wasn’t the hug that bothered him; it was the fact that she was beaming at Charles, yet she hadn’t even acknowledged William’s presence in the group. But I suppose it’s easy to ignore a eunuch.

Charles was studying Elizabeth with a degree of appreciation that William would have resented from any other man. “And you look … wow. Incredible. I guess spending time with my silent partner here must agree with you.”

Elizabeth glanced in William’s direction for a split second and then smiled at Charles, but offered no other reply. Because of his growing familiarity with her, William could see the discontent hidden behind the smile.

He couldn’t stomach any more rejection. “Excuse me,” he said in a cool, formal voice. “I need some air.” He turned on his heel and stalked out of the room, passing through the lobby and out into the heavy, damp night air.

 

William’s abrupt departure reminded Elizabeth all too vividly of her goodbye party in New York. He looked down his nose at my friends then too; thought he was too good to mix with them. And he got angry with me for no good reason and stomped outside. That time I ran after him. But this time, I say, let him leave. If he’s going to be such a jerk, who needs him?

Even as this unforgiving train of thought flowed through her mind, Elizabeth knew she didn’t mean it. As annoyed as she was with him, she couldn’t let him walk away in anger. Besides, what if he needs air because he’s having a dizzy spell? Maybe he’s in a bad mood because he’s feeling sick. He could pass out all alone on the street and hit his head and—

She excused herself, not caring that her departure was as abrupt as his, and raced after him, her heart pounding. She burst through the doors, and saw him standing alone a short distance away, his back to her illuminated by a street light.

Relief flooded her, but it was short-lived as she absorbed the tension in his bearing, evident even from this distance. He stood ramrod straight, his arms crossed over his chest. She pressed her lips tightly together and considered going back inside without speaking to him. After all, what does he have to be upset about? He’s the one who needs to apologize. But it was time to clear the air on this point, unless she wanted to deal with his unpleasant attitude every time they attended a party.

She walked briskly toward him. He turned when she was still several feet away, perhaps hearing her footsteps. He said nothing, simply observing her with a cool, level stare.

“What’s the matter, William?” She tamped down her exasperation and tried to remain calm. Her angry outburst that night in New York had done them both considerable damage, and she silently swore that this time she would let him explain himself.

“What makes you think anything is wrong?” His sarcastic tone infuriated her. “I needed some air. You didn’t need to come out and check on me. I know you’re busy inside with your many admirers.”

Elizabeth clenched her fists, her eyes icy green, and she verbally launched herself at him. “And to think that I followed you out here because I was worried about you! I thought maybe you weren’t feeling well, or that you were dizzy, and I couldn’t bear to think of you out here all alone, needing help.”

“That’s very kind of you,” he replied with a disengaged air. “I suppose I should be flattered to have your attention at last.”

“Okay, that’s it. We’re going to have this out, right now. None of this hiding behind sarcasm. I’m not going to let you do that.”

He raised his eyebrows, every inch the haughty aristocrat. “You’re not going to let me? I wasn’t aware that I answered to you.”

“Maybe not, but you have a responsibility to me. Earlier this week we agreed to take our relationship to a different place, and that means that I have a right to expect some answers from you.”

You have a right to expect answers?”

He was openly angry now, but Elizabeth preferred that to his previous frosty hauteur. “Okay, then, we both have a right to expect answers, though I can’t imagine what you have to be angry about.”

His eyes flared and he opened his mouth, but she spoke again before he had a chance to speak. “No, I’m going first. I want you to tell me—”

“Hi, Elizabeth! We finally made it.”

She whirled to see a large group approaching, whom she recognized as Charlotte’s fellow students from the Art History Ph.D. program. “Hi, everybody,” she said. “Go on in; the party’s in full swing.”

An awkward interval passed while she and William waited. Once they were alone again, he was the first to speak, raising his eyebrows. “You were saying?”

He had used the interruption to repair his mask of indifference, which was now firmly back in place. Elizabeth wished that she could tear it off to reveal the emotion that she knew lurked beneath. She had seen it in his eyes while she sang, and since he so rarely lost his temper it had been unsettling, almost frightening in its intensity.

“William, why are you acting like you don’t care? You’re ready to spit nails, though I have no idea why.”

“You’re the one who’s angry, Elizabeth. You’ve been avoiding me and glaring at me all evening.”

“Well, forgive me, but I’m sick and tired of watching you walk around at parties like the most exalted Lord of the Manor.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” The mask had slipped again, and he was eyeing her with astonishment. Even had she not seen his expression, his uncharacteristic use of even such mild profanity would have alerted her that she had taken him by surprise.

“Hey, Lizzy, is everything okay?” It was Roger Stonefield, car keys jingling in his hand.

“Just fine,” Elizabeth answered, forcing a note of false cheer into her voice. “Where are you headed?”

“We’re running out of ice, so I’m off to get some. Believe it or not, Jordan is sitting in for me on the drums. Apparently he played in a rock band in college. And Charles is up there with his sax.” He glanced at William and then back at Elizabeth, hesitated for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well, I guess I’ll see you later.”

Roger strode off, whistling “Naughty Baby.” As soon as he was gone, William swore under his breath. “We might as well be in the middle of Grand Central Station.”

“Let’s go upstairs. We won’t be bothered up there.”

He hesitated, and then nodded curtly. “All right.”

Elizabeth turned to re-enter the lower lobby and head for the elevators, but she realized that she didn’t have her keys. She sighed. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

As she re-entered the room, Kitty approached her, an odd gleam in her eye that Elizabeth suspected was the result of too many bottles of beer. “Lizzy, I just put the cake in the kitchen. You left the box out on a table.”

“Oh, thanks.” Elizabeth forced a patient smile onto her face. “I was on my way in there with it when you and Lydia stopped me, and I guess I forgot.”

“I knew you wanted it kept a secret till later, and I can certainly see why.” Kitty giggled, her eyes huge with merriment. “Nice cake! Lydia was really impressed that you chose it.”

“She was?” Elizabeth couldn’t imagine why Lydia would find Judith Leyster’s slightly modified self-portrait even remotely impressive.

“Oh, definitely. She’s already picked out the part she wants to eat.” Kitty’s laugh was almost a whoop.

There wasn’t any time to chat about the cake right now, not with William waiting outside, no doubt becoming more imperious and emotionally inaccessible by the moment. “Well, thanks for taking care of it.”

Before Elizabeth could take more than half a dozen steps toward the oor, Charlotte grabbed her arm.

“What on earth is up with you and William? You both ran out of here like the cops were chasing you. I asked Roger to check up on you on his way to get the ice.”

“Now’s not a good time, Char. We’re … in the middle of something.” Elizabeth didn’t even try to sound calm.

Charlotte released her arm. “All right, I’ll let you go. But at least tell me that you’re okay.”

“I am. Everything’s fine.” At least, I hope so.

Elizabeth fetched her keys from the kitchen counter and hurried from the room before anyone else could delay her.

------
1 “Naughty Baby,” words and music by George and Ira Gershwin. Sung by Maureen McGovern on Naughty Baby: Maureen McGovern Sings Gershwin, © 1989, CBS Records. Listen to a sample on iTunes. (Christiane Noll hasn’t recorded this one, as far as I know.)