Elizabeth unlocked the door and led the way into her living room. She and William had been silent on their way upstairs—a tense, dangerous silence. Adrenalin jittered through her veins, making it difficult to think.

He stood with his arms folded acrross his chest, his chin jutting out. Perhaps because of her anxieties, he looked even taller than usual, but she refused to be intimidated by his height or by the icy mask he wore. Neither of them would leave this room until he revealed the man behind the mask.

She met his cool gaze with one of her own. “What’s wrong with you tonight?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I thought you wanted to go first.”

“I am going first. And I want to know what’s going on in your head.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Obviously, he wasn’t going to make this easy, not that she was surprised. “I want you to explain how you can find me even remotely worthy of your attention when you’re so contemptuous of my friends.” She had rehearsed that sentence on the way upstairs.

He shook his head and exhaled a loud sigh. “That’s absurd.”

She planted her hands on her hips. “It is not. You’ve spent the evening acting like everybody has some disgusting disease you didn’t want to catch.”

“I was in a room full of strangers.” He lifted his chin even further. “I talked to the people I knew.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, and of course you can’t meet anyone at a party.”

He dug his hands into his pockets and fastened his eyes on a print of Monet’s water lilies hanging over the sofa. “I’m not good at making small talk with strangers.”

“You seemed to do just fine at the Juilliard reception, and at Catherine de Bourgh’s party. You were chatting with everybody in the place. You weren’t walking around with your nose so far in the air you couldn’t make eye contact with anything but the chandeliers.”

His head snapped toward her, and although his voice was cool, she saw emotion flickering in his eyes. “And you can’t see the difference? I had no idea that you understood me so little.”

“Oh, I can see the difference, all right.” Her patience was exhausted. “The people at the reception were the cream of New York society, with money and jewelry and designer clothes. They weren’t starving actors, like my friends in New York, or everyday people, like tonight. They weren’t beneath you, like we are.”

“I’m not going to dignify that with a response. But since you want to talk about the Juilliard reception, let’s talk about it. Your thesis advisor and I were the only two people you knew.”

“And I had just met Richard. What’s your point?”

“After your advisor left, you didn’t walk around making small talk with the other guests. You sat alone at a table and waited for me. And yet when I behave the same way, I’m criticized for it.”

“It’s not the same at all. For one thing, I didn’t sit there scowling and looking bored. For another, I’d done my mingling earlier in the evening. I’d have gone home when Dr. Church did if you hadn’t asked me to stay.”

“Exactly. You were there because I asked you to stay. Why do you think I came to your party in New York? It wasn’t so I could get to know a bunch of waiters who think they can act. And I didn’t come here tonight to meet Berkeley’s entire Art History department.”

His snobbery infuriated her. “Thanks for proving my point. How you can deny that you look down your nose at my friends, and then say something as arrogant as that ten seconds later?”

My point was that you’re the one I care about, the one I want to be with. And my assumption was that you invited me because you wanted to be with me. But then you—”

He stopped abruptly, and she could almost see the torrent of words he was suppressing. Obviously they were approaching the heart of the matter.

“Go on,” she said. “Don’t stop when you’re on a roll.”

He shook his head, his gaze returning to the water lilies. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Stop doing that!” Acting on instinct, Elizabeth stepped between William and the Monet poster and grabbed his arms.

He took a small, stumbling step backward. “Stop doing what?”

“Stop hiding from me. Stop pretending that nothing’s wrong.” She took a deep breath and continued in a calmer tone. “What are you so afraid to say to me?”

“All right, if that’s what you want,” he growled. “You seem to have time for everyone but me tonight. You’ve been treating me like I’m a … like I barely exist, and then you’ve made me stand and watch while you flirted with other men.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” She let go of his arms and stepped back.

Fire raged in his eyes, his voice low and dangerous. “Isn’t it enough that you’re never out of my thoughts, that my day isn’t complete unless I hear your voice and see you smile, that I want you so much I’m ready to explode? Do you really need to bewitch every other man in the room too?”

Her protest died in her throat as his words penetrated her indignation. As she stared at him, her eyes huge, he gripped her shoulders and dragged her into his arms. His mouth came down on hers, hot and greedy.

This wasn’t supposed to be happening; they were supposed to be talking, working out their differences. But that was hard to remember when her senses were filled by the fierce heat of his kiss. She wasn’t sure why he was drowning in need, but she instinctively snaked her arms around his waist, ready to sink into the abyss with him.

“You’re driving me mad, Lizzy,” he muttered, dragging his mouth away from hers. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” His hands roved down her back, and his flaming kisses burned a path along her throat. “Why did you make me watch you up on the stage, looking so sexy? You had to know what that song would do to me.”

“I didn’t …” Her words dissolved into a moan as his lips found a particularly sensitive spot at the base of her neck.

He pulled her over to the sofa, easing her down until she lay on her back while he hovered over her. Her brain sent up warning flares, but her heart and her body snuffed them out. His body seemed to envelop her in its strength and heat, and she answered the urgent demands of his hungry mouth with her own rising passion. William shifted onto his side and pressed her firmly against him, letting out a long, low groan that made her shiver. He buried his face against her neck, spreading sultry kisses down her throat and across her bare shoulder, igniting little fires along the way.

When at last he raised his head, his eyes were dark wells of passion. He brushed her hair away from her cheek and spoke in a husky voice. “You smell like a tropical garden. Sweet and warm and exotic.”

His open shirt collar afforded a glimpse of his chest, seeming to dare her to explore further. She buried her nose in that triangle of warm flesh, inhaling deeply. His scent filled her nostrils, clean and spicy and male in a way that she couldn’t explain but that her body understood. An ache was building inside her, and she redoubled her assault on his neck.

He murmured her name, and his wandering fingers curled around her breast, capturing it in his palm. His hand moved in a gentle massage, his caresses slow and deliberate. Tingling from head to toe, she pressed her parted lips to his.

As the kiss deepened, his hand slipped under her top and drifted upward, the stretchy fabric offering no resistance. She was propelled back to the night at her apartment in New York, the last time he had touched her in such an intimate way.

She pulled her lips away from his. “William …” she began, doubt trembling in her voice, “I don’t think we should do this.”

“I think we should,” he whispered, his mouth slanting across hers again.

His hand slipped inside her bra and captured her breast. Her brain rapped out an order: Stop this now, before it’s too late. But the desire pouring through her overwhelmed logic and caution. Just last night she had lain alone in her bed, wondering what the touch of his hands would feel like. Now she knew: it felt like heaven.

 

William was beyond thought or reason. To have her in his arms this way was a balm to his wounded heart and his bruised ego. The frustrations of the party melted away as she engulfed his senses: her eyes clouded with passion, the soft moans that encouraged his caresses, the scent of her perfume, the taste of her lips, and above all, the intoxicating feel of her breast filling his palm. The maddening temptress on the stage downstairs had vanished, leaving behind a passionate woman whose eager responses were sending his desire spiraling to dizzying heights.

Her skin was like silk, or perhaps satin, smooth and soft and surprisingly cool against his fingertips. Her eyes drifted shut as he explored the slopes and curves of the firm globe with the rapt appreciation of a true connoisseur. He gently rolled her nipple between his fingers and she sighed softly. He longed to feast his eyes and lips on her, and with an uneasy sense of déjà vu, he grasped the hem of her blouse and began to tug it upward, intent on its removal.

Elizabeth’s eyes opened and she grabbed his hand, stilling it. “Wait,” she breathed.

“What’s wrong?”

She sighed and shook her head. “We have to stop.”

“Why?” A wave of fear, tinged with annoyance, seeped into his lust-soaked brain. Their terrible argument in New York had started in much the same way. Any second now she’ll probably shove me off the sofa and onto the floor.

Instead, she touched his cheek tenderly, an expression on her face that might have been regret. “Because … well, for one thing, Jane could walk in at any minute, to get a serving dish or something like that.”

“We could go to your bedroom,” he murmured, relieved that it was no worse. “She wouldn’t bother us in there.” His hand broke free from hers and he resumed his caresses.

“No, really, we can’t do this.” Her voice was more forceful now.

“Why not?”

She pushed his hands away gently but decisively and struggled into a sitting position, which required him to do the same. “You know as well as I do why not. We can’t go where this is headed—not yet, anyway—and if we don’t stop now, I’m afraid we might not stop at all.”

He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands, breathing hard. It took some time before he could curb his frustration sufficiently to comprehend her argument; after all, it wasn’t as though she knew about the doctor’s restriction. Then guilt washed over him. No more than an hour ago, I swore to myself that I’d let her take the lead. And the first chance I got, I completely broke that promise.

His ego rushed to his defense. It would never have happened if she hadn’t sung that song, like one of my fantasies come to life before my eyes. She shouldn’t stand in front of me and taunt me with what I can’t have. But even as the words formed in his mind, he was ashamed of himself. Whatever her reasons for singing the song, she hadn’t done it to torture him. And in any case, he was responsible for his own behavior, regardless of hers.

He took a deep breath and raised his head, meeting her anxious gaze. “You’re right. And I didn’t mean to push; I’m sorry about that. I want you so much that sometimes I get carried away and forget.”

She nodded. “I understand.”

He kissed her softly and resolved to do a better job of controlling his libido. “I need to remember that good things are worth waiting for.”

“Yes, they are.”

“And in the meantime, patience is my new watchword. William ‘Patience’ Darcy, that’s me from now on.”

“I think you’d better wear a nametag; nobody will recognize you.”

He grinned, feeling the last of the tension between them melt away. “And there’s that smart mouth of yours, acting up again.”

She laughed, but he silenced her with a long, slow kiss. After that, they sat quietly on the sofa together, his arm draped around her, her head on his shoulder.

“I guess we’d better finish our conversation,” she said, pausing to yawn. “We have to get back to the party soon.”

“Are you sure? I’d rather just stay here.” His eyes gleamed. “Maybe I’ll pick another fight, so we can make up again.”

“You’re incorrigible, Mr. Darcy.”

“I do my best.”

He was trying to prolong their gentle banter, but Elizabeth wasn’t that easily distracted. “We have to start doing a better job of talking about things that are bothering us.”

“That’s not easy for me.”

“But it’s important. We get in trouble when we start trying to read each other’s minds. We’re not good at it, and then we end up mad or hurt or frustrated. Will you promise to try?”

He nodded. He knew that she was right. Besides, when she looked at him with that sweet, coaxing smile, it was impossible to refuse her anything.

“Good,” she said, stroking his jaw. “And I promise too.”

“I have a question for you.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Okay. Go ahead.”

“Tonight you seemed to be avoiding me. I remember the same thing at the party in New York. And at the rehearsal dinner too, now that I think of it. Am I such dull company that you can’t bear to be around me? And in that case, why do you keep inviting me to things?”

She took his hand. “You’re not dull company, not at all. But when you get all silent and disapproving at parties, I’m not sure how to deal with you, so I end up leaving you alone.”

“Lizzy, you’re misinterpreting the situation. It has nothing to do with disapproval. I’m not a … party sort of person.”

“But you go to parties all the time.”

He sighed. “And I hate them.”

“You seemed fine at the Juilliard reception.”

“Because I forced myself to be the genial host. I had a responsibility to my family and the foundation. Besides, most of the guests were patrons of the arts. They wanted to talk about the recital, or about music in general, and I don’t mind that.”

“Well, okay, that makes sense.”

“But a room full of strangers … or even people I’ve met but don’t know well.” He shuddered. “My idea of hell would be a series of rooms, each one with a noisy party I had to attend. And that receiving line at the party at Rosings last week was a close second. I’ve never learned to make small talk.”

“But you don’t even seem to try. You’re a talented, intelligent man. Don’t you suppose that with practice you could master that skill, like you did the piano?”

He hesitated. “Those people downstairs all know one another, but I don’t know them. And I have little in common with them. It was the same at your party in New York. I’m an outsider.”

“But if you’re not willing to talk to them, the situation can’t improve. And people stay away from you because your manner discourages them.”

“Nonsense.” William jutted his chin out. “Charlotte’s friend Roger came over to talk to me and we had a great conversation about jazz.”

A smile warmed Elizabeth’s face. “Roger is a sweetheart. But can’t you see why most people would be reluctant to just walk up to you and introduce themselves?”

“No. Enlighten me.” He hadn’t meant to sound so haughty.

She pursed her lips, a faint gleam in her eye. “The rumor mill is grinding away, and I’m sure everybody knows who you are by now. Imagine that you’re one of them, and you look over and see William Darcy, Rich and Famous Person—that’s capitalized—in the corner. And in case that’s not enough to scare you away, he’s standing apart from the crowd, looking bored and unapproachable. Would you go over and introduce yourself?”

“I don’t intend to look that way. But I admit, I sort of go inside myself when I feel awkward.”

“Like a turtle retreating into its shell?”

It was an apt, if undignified, analogy. “I suppose so.”

“That’s not what you project. You can be intimidating, Mr. Darcy, whether you mean to or not.”

He sat up straight and directed a quizzical glance at her. “Do I intimidate you?”

“Not a chance,” she said in a flippant tone. “When someone tries to intimidate me, it just stimulates my competitive instincts.”

They shared a smile that grew warmer as they gazed at each other. “I don’t disapprove of your friends,” he said, reaching for her hand. “But I’m different from you. You’re bright and lively and sweet, and people naturally flock to you. It’s harder for me. If they show an interest, it’s usually because of my money or my career or my family, not because of me.”

“I wish I’d understood all of this. I would have introduced you to more people and taken better care of you. But I always thought you didn’t want to meet them, that you considered them beneath you, and I thought you’d be annoyed if I forced you to talk to them.”

“It’s all right. I’m glad we got this out into the open.”

She gave him an appraising glance, hesitated, and finally spoke. “None of this explains why you’re so cold to Jane, though. It really bothers me.”

Now they were in dangerous territory. It would be disastrous to admit that, while he didn’t disapprove of Elizabeth’s friends, her family members were another matter. He decided to offer a half-truth. “It’s awkward, because of Charles.”

“That was Jane’s guess when we talked about it. She said she was glad Charles had such a loyal friend.”

This was consistent with William’s earlier impression of Jane as a peacemaker, and he couldn’t help but be impressed. It was a shame that other aspects of her personality weren’t equally laudable.

“Anyway.” Elizabeth continued, “could you try a little harder with her, for my sake? I wish you two could be friends … or at least you could try not to turn to stone when she’s around.”

“I’ll try harder, I promise. So, have we covered everything?”

“Not quite. You said something earlier about the song I sang.”

“Don’t worry about that. I was overreacting.”

“We said we weren’t going to push things aside anymore. Tell me.”

He studied the ceiling, rehearsing a response, and then spoke in a measured tone. “When we’re alone, you’ve shown hesitation, even reluctance, when it comes to sex. So I didn’t expect you to sing a song like that.”

“Because if I sing a song like that, it means that I’m that sort of woman?”

“Not necessarily, but it suggests a certain … attitude.”

Elizabeth’s expression hardened and William silently berated himself. Just when they’d smoothed things over, he’d stirred up more trouble.

Her response surprised him. “Did your mother ever play Carmen?” She was referring to the title role in Bizet’s famous opera.

“Yes, before I was born.”

“Carmen was hardly modest and virtuous. Does that mean your mother was ‘that sort of woman’?”

“Absolutely not.” William bristled at the suggestion. “But she was playing a character.”

“And I’m playing a character when I sing a song. Besides, it’s not as though the song is indecent. It’s just …” Elizabeth paused, frowning slightly, and stared across the room.

“Teasing?” he suggested.

She turned back to him and nodded. “Teasing. And about the contradiction between the song and my attitude toward sex … that’s what I like about singing ‘Naughty Baby.’ It’s a chance to become someone I’m not, someone who’s uninhibited and seductive, and to see what it feels like to be her. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”

“Actually, it does.” William’s music helped him to escape into imaginary worlds, and she was talking about the same idea. “My problem was that you were so convincing, you didn’t seem to be playing a role.”

“And the teasing got to you, considering what’s been going on between us?”

“Or not going on,” William muttered before he could stop himself.

She looked down with a small, rueful smile, her lips pressed together. “I’m sorry. I admit, I used the song I sang at the rehearsal dinner to make you uncomfortable, but that was before I knew you. I’d never do that to you now.”

Crooking a finger under her chin, he coaxed her head up to meet his gaze. “I know. I was just suffering from temporary insanity earlier.”

“Well, then, you’re my favorite nutcase.”

His eyes narrowed. “I said temporary insanity.”

“Okay, then, my favorite temporary nutcase.” She smiled. “‘Naughty Baby’ is the guys’ favorite of the ones I sing with them, so it was automatically the one they chose. We perform it a lot, and audiences really respond to it.”

His fingers combed gently through her hair. “Of course they do. Lizzy, you were the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Her smile held a hint of embarrassment. “It never occurred to me that you’d have such a powerful allergic reaction to it.”

He grinned. “Well put.”

“Okay, so we’ve covered the song, and that you felt out of place. And of course you overheard Lydia. I’m so sorry about that.”

William heard the shame in Elizabeth’s voice. It wasn’t her fault that her family was disgraceful; in fact, it did her credit that she’d risen above their level. He pushed aside his indignation at Lydia’s shameless behavior and sought to distract her with humor, raising his eyebrows suggestively. “I just wish you were half as interested in my anatomy as she is.”

She laughed softly, a wicked sparkle in her eyes. “What makes you think I’m not?”

He swallowed hard, wondering how best to respond. I guess tossing her over my shoulder and carrying her to her bedroom is probably out. He was just about to make a half-teasing offer to satisfy her curiosity when her expression grew serious and she spoke again.

“I know I keep stopping us when things start to … overheat. But don’t think for a second that part of me doesn’t want to keep going.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” He ran a gentle finger down her cheek and along her neck. Unable to resist the soft, yearning expression in her eyes, he leaned over and kissed her, gently at first, but soon they were kissing with renewed hunger.

She finally pulled away with a rueful smile. “We can’t start this again; we have to get back downstairs. And I’d better fix my hair and make-up. I must be a mess.”

“You look beautiful, but if we went downstairs right now nobody would need to ask what we’d been doing.”

“That’s what I figured.” She inspected him closely. “Hold still for a second. I’m not the only one who’s not quite ready to be seen.”

He raised an inquiring eyebrow as she rubbed her thumb against his cheek. “Lipstick,” she explained.

He chuckled. “I’m sure it looks much better on you.”

She kissed him quickly and then straightened up. “I’ll be right back.”

 

When Elizabeth returned, her hair and make-up restored to the best condition she could manage in a hurry, she found William in the kitchen inspecting the cell phone she had purchased that morning.

He gave her a mournful look. “I was hoping you’d change your mind and keep the one I gave you.”

“You know me better than that. In fact, why don’t you take yours; it’s right there beside the new one.”

“Oh, all right.” He picked it up, cradling it in his hand.

“Are you going to start using that one?”

“I think so.” He inspected the phone. “It seems like a good idea to switch to the new one, since Sonya and I don’t understand what’s been going on with my voicemail.”

“You’re still having trouble?”

He looked up at her and nodded. “I didn’t use the phone much this summer, but since I arrived here I’ve been noticing some odd things. If I have a new message, a picture of an envelope should show up on the screen. But I’ve had a few messages come in from Richard and Sonya that I didn’t notice till later because the envelope never appeared. The voicemail system acts as though I’ve already heard the messages.”

William was by no means a technology expert, but he sounded confident of his facts. Elizabeth considered other possibilities. “Does Sonya ever check your messages? That’s really what it sounds like—somebody else is checking your voicemail.”

“Sonya has the password, but only for emergencies. My voicemail is private, and she knows that. After all, some lovely green-eyed lady might want to call and leave me a provocative message.”

Elizabeth made a mental note to do exactly that some time soon. “Well, this green-eyed lady needs to get back to the party she’s theoretically hosting, so let’s go.”

He tucked the phone into his pocket, and they followed the hallway to the elevator lobby, hands clasped. But Elizabeth soon began to fidget, feeling guilty for deserting the party—and Jane, given Charles’s presence—for so long.

“This elevator is taking forever,” she grumbled. “And I want to be there when they bring out the cake. I hope I didn’t miss it.”

He grimaced. “The cake. I’d forgotten about that.”

“There you go again. What is so wrong with the cake?” The elevator doors opened at last, and they stepped aboard.

“Didn’t you think I deserved some warning about what I was getting myself into, picking up that cake?”

“Warning?” She wrinkled her nose. “About what? I mean, granted, the bakery’s not on Snob Hill, but it’s not like I sent you to the Tenderloin.1

He let go of her hand. “You might as well have. Didn’t you stop to think that it would put me in an awkward position, given the chance that I might be recognized, which I was, incidentally. The clerk was about to invite me to his favorite gay bar to meet some ‘great guys,’ if I hadn’t interrupted him.”

She stared at him, astonished and clearly amused. “The clerk at the bakery propositioned you?”

The elevator doors opened and they stepped out into the hall. “No, but he jumped to some conclusions about me. And who can blame him, considering the cake?”

She stopped walking and faced him. “What are you talking about? He jumped to the conclusion that you were an art lover? Oh, the degradation! The humiliation!” She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead in a melodramatic gesture.

He squared his shoulders, pursing his lips. “I’m delighted to be providing you so much amusement. And I must say, if that’s what passes for art in San Francisco—”

“I think it passes for art pretty much everywhere. In fact, didn’t you say at the rehearsal dinner that this was a particular interest of your grandmother’s? I mean the original, obviously, not the edible version.”

“I beg your pardon.”

She had heard those words spoken in similar accents once before in a movie depicting 18th-century English cavaliers, followed immediately by the flinging of a gauntlet. Something was wrong. “William, what did the cake look like?”

A pained look came across his face. “It’s … large, and all chocolate. Except for a bit of white frosting at the … at one end.”

“No. I ordered a banana nut cake. That’s Charlotte’s favorite. Besides, how on earth did they do the portrait all in chocolate? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“The portrait? I don’t know what you’re talking about. The cake is in the shape of a rather large … appendage. A male appendage.”

She stared at him in growing alarm. “You mean a—?” Her eyes involuntarily flicked to William’s crotch, which only magnified her distress.

“Yes. With, you know …” He extended his hands just below waist height, his palms turned up and cupped.

“But I ordered a sheet cake with a copy of a 17th-century Dutch painting, not—”

The familiar strains of “Happy Birthday to You” echoed from down the hall. For a moment Elizabeth gaped at William, frozen in place, and then she broke into a run. The song had to be premature, she was sure of it. Jane, who knew Elizabeth’s plans for the cake, would never have brought out the disaster in baked goods William had just described.

She burst into the party room just in time to hear the guests’ raucous laughter as they clustered around a table. Charlotte’s voice rose above the rest. “So, is the guy who posed for this going to show up soon?”

A pair of gentle hands grasped Elizabeth’s shoulders as she stood frozen in the doorway, and she turned to see William standing behind her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have asked more questions earlier.”

“It’s not your fault. Anyway, the damage is done, so we might as well get this over with.”

As they advanced into the room, Jane, her face scarlet, hurried over. It was a measure of her distress that she neglected to acknowledge William’s presence before asking Elizabeth, in urgent tones, “Did you know about this?”

“I never got around to looking inside the box. William tried to ask me about it when he got here, but I thought he was just being stuffy and pretentious so I ignored him.”

“Why, thank you,” William muttered.

Elizabeth flashed him an apologetic glance, but she didn’t have time to soothe his ego. She turned back to Jane. “Why didn’t you just leave it in the kitchen?”

“Kitty and Lydia volunteered to take care of it, and since I never looked in the box I had no idea … You wouldn’t believe where they put the candles.”

Elizabeth groaned. Across the room, the guests applauded; evidently Charlotte had successfully extinguished the candles. She heard Lydia cry, “I know which piece I want!”

“No way,” Charlotte retorted. “It’s my cake, and I get first choice. But there are other interesting options available for some lucky girl.”

“Elizabeth, there you are.” It was Bill Collins, with a troubled expression on his face. “I’ve been looking for you for some time.”

“I’m sorry. I had something I needed to take care of.” She was careful not to look in William’s direction.

“Well, I’m so pleased that you’re back. But … oh, dear, I hesitate to say this, because of course I have nothing but the highest regard for your judgment, but I’m a bit surprised at your choice for the birthday cake. Forgive me for being so blunt, but I can’t help but think that it seems rather … what is the word?”

“Tasteless? Pornographic?” William suggested.

“Oh, now, Mr. Darcy, let’s not be too hard on poor Elizabeth. I’m sure she—”

“The bakery made a mistake,” Elizabeth said.

Relief flooded Bill’s face. “Oh, thank heaven. I knew there had to be some mistake, because of course with your taste and delicacy you would never stoop to ordering such a … Well, in any case, anyone who knows you should realize at once that it had to be a misunderstanding.”

“Liz, what a fabulous cake!” It was Charlotte, brandishing a fork. Elizabeth glanced at the contents of the plate in Charlotte’s hand and winced. It was even worse than she had imagined.

“This isn’t the cake I ordered, Char. I’m so embarrassed.”

“Well, don’t be. I think it’s a riot. I have a feeling there’s going to be some left over, though. The guys thought it was hilarious when they saw it, but they don’t seem anxious to eat any. Most of them can’t even stand watching Kitty cutting it.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw William flinch, and she almost laughed.

“What did the one you ordered look like?” Charlotte asked, popping a forkful of cake into her mouth.

“It had Judith Leyster’s self-portrait on it in frosting … except they were going to put a moustache and beard on her.”

Charlotte chuckled. “That would have been fun too. I wondered what happened.”

“I’m not sure. But the bakery’s delivery van had an accident, and several cakes were ruined, including ours. They had to bake new ones in a hurry, and I bet the orders got confused. Remember, William, I was surprised that you didn’t have to wait for the cake? You picked it up about half an hour before they said it would be ready.”

“So it was still in the back being worked on, and this one was intended for another person named Bennet.” He nodded. “That makes sense.”

“I wonder who this one was for.” Elizabeth thought for a moment.

Charlotte snorted. “I’d love to have been there when they unveiled the cake with the bearded lady on it.”

 

Later that night, William lounged in a large wicker chair, his eyes scanning the few remaining party guests. The lateness of the hour and the emotional stress of the evening had left him yawning, but his buoyant spirits gifted him with renewed energy.

Since they had returned to the party, Elizabeth had kept him at her side almost constantly, making introductions and effortlessly drawing him into conversations until he could almost have sworn that he was skilled at small talk. Although he would have been even happier to retreat to a quiet corner with her, it had given him pleasure to move through the crowd with her, hearing the undisguised warmth in her voice as she introduced him to her friends.

The presence of Bill Collins, always lurking within a few feet of them, demanded discretion. They had thus resorted to subtle contact, their arms “accidentally” brushing together, or a furtive touch of their hands, often accompanied by a brief but warm glance. It had turned into a secret game that William found oddly exhilarating.

At the moment Elizabeth was absent, occupied with getting Kitty and Lydia home safely. Ignoring their incoherent protests, she had confiscated Kitty’s car keys and called a cab company. She was outside with them now, waiting for the taxi to arrive.

He didn’t want her to find him alone on her return to the party room, not with her earlier reproofs still echoing in his ears. His first thought was to join Charles; they hadn’t yet had an opportunity for a conversation of any substance. But Charles was in a corner with Jane, and unlikely to welcome interruptions. William looked for Charlotte, but she was saying goodbye to her fellow doctoral students.

Lacking anything better to do, he wandered over to the food table and inspected the remains of the birthday cake, a rueful grin on his face. Poor Lizzy. His embarrassment over the incident at the bakery had faded, and he could now see the humor in his encounter with Jess, the bakery clerk. I should have known that Lizzy wouldn’t order a cake like that. Collins was right; I should have trusted her.

He popped a red grape into his mouth and bit into it, its sweetness cascading over his tongue and awakening his appetite. Jane and Elizabeth had assembled an extensive, if simple, selection of tidbits, but he’d had few opportunities to sample anything, far too busy digesting the evening’s oversized helping of emotional upheaval.

He had just cut a small wedge from a block of cheddar cheese and was reviewing his cracker options when Roger Stonefield stepped alongside him and grabbed some pretzels from a nearby bowl. The jazz group’s bass player—William couldn’t remember his last name, but his first name was Jim—also sidled up to the table, clutching a bottle of beer.

The men greeted each other and were soon in the midst of a relaxed conversation, punctuated by breaks during which they devoured most of the remaining goodies on the table. They left the cake untouched, but William found himself sharing the tale of his trip to the bakery.

As Roger and Jim chuckled at his description of Jess, a faint whiff of jasmine tickled William’s nostrils. He felt a gentle touch on his back, and it seemed that the air around him was charged with electricity. He turned, not surprised to see Elizabeth standing close behind him.

“Did you send the girls on their way?” William asked, as the men widened their circle to admit her.

She sighed, and he saw the tension around her eyes. “Yeah.” Then she flashed a bright smile. “What was all the chortling about?”

“We’ve been hearing how hazardous it is to have you for a girlfriend,” Jim said, raising an eyebrow at William. “You wind up running some seriously bizarre errands.”

“I’ll say.” Roger laughed. “Plus, it sounds like you almost had some competition. I think that bakery guy was getting ready to ask William out.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “He’s squeezing every last drop out of that story, I see.”

William directed an admonishing glance at her, but when she batted her eyelids innocently, he couldn’t help but smile. His hand slipped behind her, caressing the small of her back. She took a tiny step toward him and peeked up through her lashes in gentle flirtation, short-circuiting his brain and causing him to miss a question from Roger. Elizabeth nudged him, and he forced himself to listen as Roger repeated his query.

“There isn’t any chance that the bakery guy would talk to the newspapers, is there?”

“No,” William answered. “I’m not tabloid fodder. The people who read those rags don’t care about classical music. Besides, there are plenty of openly gay classical musicians.”

“It never occurred to me that you could end up in a gossip column,” Elizabeth said. Her finger traced a secret path across his palm, and a tingle shot up his arm.

Jim glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s been a great party, but I think Jan and I had better head home.” He turned to William. “Nice to see you again. Have Lizzy bring you to one of our gigs soon. We’ll tell Bill to take a break, and you can sit in for a while.”

“I’d like that.” William suspected that Bill Collins wouldn’t like it in the least, which only increased his enthusiasm for the idea.

“I should start loading the drums into my van,” Roger said. “It’s late, and I’m sure you’d like to get rid of the few of us who are left so you can get this place cleaned up.”

“Actually, we’re only doing part of the cleanup tonight,” Elizabeth replied. “And I was thinking of asking William to help.”

“Watch out,” Jim said with a smirk, “or she’ll have you at the sink in a frilly apron, washing dishes.”

“Perish the thought,” Elizabeth retorted, her eyes twinkling. “I was thinking in terms of moving tables and other appropriately macho stuff.”

William shrugged. “Just as long as I don’t have to fetch any more baked goods.”

“And on that note, I’ll be going,” Roger said, laughing. He kissed Elizabeth on the cheek and shook hands with William.

Jim crossed the room to join a woman whom William assumed was his wife. Roger ambled over to the stage area, where Bill Collins was packing up his electronic keyboard. Charles was there as well, assisting Bill. William scanned the room looking for Jane, but she was absent. Perhaps she was outside saying a private goodnight to Jordan. Poor Charles.

He turned back to Elizabeth. “I was surprised that Jim knew we were seeing each other.”

“Roger made a remark about us earlier tonight and Jim overheard. But we explained that he shouldn’t say anything to Bill. It’ll be fine.”

I hope so. Keeping the news of their relationship away from the conservatory was going to be difficult. But as she said once, we don’t want to be reduced to clandestine meetings in dark places. Although now and then … hmm.

He glanced around the room and quickly formulated a plan. “Ms. Bennet, would you do me the honor of joining me in the kitchen for a moment?”

“My goodness, so formal! Does this mean you’re anxious to get started on the dishes?”

“Not exactly.” His hands on her waist, he walked behind her, guiding her firmly into the kitchen.

The room was dark except for a weak light shining above the sink. “Here, I’ll turn on some lights.” Elizabeth said, but before she had a chance, William’s arms were around her.

“That won’t be necessary,” he whispered. “For what I have in mind we don’t need any more light. I couldn’t go another second without kissing you.”

She giggled, sliding her hands up his chest. “Well, aren’t you the mad, impetuous fellow all of a sudden.”

She pressed her lips to his, kissing him with such purpose and enthusiasm that he might have laughed had desire not roared to life with such alarming speed. When his hands began, entirely without his permission, to wander over her body, he forced himself to end the kiss, his chin resting lightly against the top of her head.

In an effort to ignore the intoxicating softness of her body as she snuggled against him, he chanted his new mantra: Patience …good things are worth waiting for. He inhaled slowly and stroked her hair in a tender caress. I need to show my body who’s in charge: it’s going to start taking instructions from my brain, not the other way around. Although first I need to get my brain under control. Both the spirit and the flesh were willing—in fact, eager and impatient. But for Elizabeth’s sake, he could regulate himself.

He heard a metallic crash from the next room. Probably Roger had dropped some part of his drum set. Roused by the noise, Elizabeth raised her head from William’s shoulder, and even in the dim light he could see the tender concern in her eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay with the whole cake business?”

He nodded. “In retrospect, it’s a funny story. Richard and Sonya will love it.”

“But I got the feeling that something was bothering you. Are the newspapers more of a concern than you wanted to admit?”

William was about to insist that nothing was wrong, but he stopped himself. If I want her in my life, I’m going to have to learn to share my feelings. She’s made that clear. “It’s not the newspapers that worry me. What if the clerk or his roommate should happen to know a classical musician, someone who plays with the San Francisco Symphony, or who sings in the opera company? The classical music world is a tight-knit community and people love to gossip.”

“And if the story got out, people would think you’re gay.”

“They’re welcome to think what they like; I don’t care. But I hate the idea of my private life becoming grist for the gossip mill, whatever the reason.”

“I hate to say it, but I’m sure that the women who play in the symphonies you visit, or who work in the front offices, already gossip about you. I bet they speculate a lot about whether or not you have a girlfriend, plus some other things that would make you blush.”

William, who was frequently the target of both subtle and blatant overtures from female musicians and symphony administrators, decided it was safest not to respond to her remark. Instead, he raised a subject he’d been thinking about for the past few days. “I know a way we could stop the gossip, or at least redirect it.”

“What’s that?”

“I could take my girlfriend with me on some of my trips, once I start traveling again.” He stroked her cheek with his thumb. “If she’d like to come, that is.”

Elizabeth’s eyes shone. “She’d like that very much.”

“Good.” His smoothed her hair, brushing it off her shoulders.

“Of course, it might be difficult to arrange, with my teaching schedule.”

“Let’s not talk about that right now.” He caressed her neck and shoulder. “We’ll work out the details later. I want to think about seeing you in the audience smiling at me, and then kissing you in the back seat of the limo after the performance.”

She toyed with the rebellious curl that insisted on spilling onto his forehead. “You know, either way, you’re going to make a lot of women unhappy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your female fans. Regardless of whether they hear that you’ve started showing up with a girlfriend, or that you’re suspected of being gay, they’re going to be heartbroken.”

He chuckled. “I guess they’ll just have to live with it. They’d better be careful, though. My girlfriend is the jealous sort.”

“Is that so? Your girlfriend’s the jealous one, not you?” She raised her eyebrows, her eyes gleaming with amusement.

He adopted a virtuous air. “Absolutely. She has quite a temper, while I’m a veritable saint.”

She laughed, her eyes alive with joy and merriment, and his heart turned over in his chest. Ti adoro, cara. Had she not raised up on her toes to press her eager lips to his in a sweet, warm kiss, he might have spoken the words aloud.

“Okay, Saint William,” she teased, stepping out of his embrace, “we’d better get you back to the party. By now we must be running low on drinks, and they’ll be needing someone to turn water into wine.”

“My work is never done,” he grumbled, but his eyes twinkled and there was a spring in his step as he followed her out of the kitchen.

 

It was probably inevitable that Charlotte, Jane, and Charles would be standing together near the kitchen as Elizabeth came through the door with William at her heels. She promised herself not to blush, meeting three pairs of curious eyes with as much composure as she could manage.

“There you are!” Charlotte gestured toward them. “Finally! We were starting to wonder if you two were ever going to come up for air.”

Elizabeth’s resolution not to blush crumbled in the face of her friend’s knowing grin. She considered denying Charlotte’s innuendo, but she doubted that she’d convince anyone. “How did you know where we were?”

“Oh, come on,” Charlotte said, smirking. “Charles and I both saw William push you into the kitchen, and you obviously weren’t doing dishes in the dark.”

“But we think it’s great that you’ve worked out your differences,” Charles added hastily. “We were worried about you earlier.”

Elizabeth darted an apologetic glance at William. Speaking of his private life being the subject of gossip … She expected to see annoyance, or at least discomfort, in his expression, but he appeared to be completely unruffled.

“Thank you, but there’s nothing to worry about,” he announced, astonishing Elizabeth by wrapping his arms around her waist from behind. This is my privacy freak who hates to show his feelings?

“That’s a relief,” Charlotte said. “The way you two looked when you stormed out of here earlier tonight, we were taking bets on how many body bags we were going to need.”

“Now, stop it. We knew it wasn’t that bad.” Jane smiled at Elizabeth. “Like Charles said, we were just concerned. I’m glad things are better now.”

Elizabeth glanced around the room. It was empty, except for the five of them. “Speaking of Roger, where is he?”

“He just left,” Charlotte replied. “Said he’d see you at the gig on Sunday night.”

“I need to get going too.” Charles glanced self-consciously at Jane. “Caroline insisted on waiting up for me.” His expression was unreadable, as was Jane’s, but their body language spoke volumes as they darted awkward, appraising glances at each other.

William released his hold on Elizabeth and shook Charles’s hand. “Are you staying the rest of the weekend?”

Charles shook his head. “Father isn’t feeling well, and he needs me to represent him at a party on Saturday night, so I have to get home.”

“I’ll walk out to the car with you.”

As the two men headed out the door, Elizabeth heard William say, “At least stay till the afternoon, and we can get breakfast before you leave. Lizzy took me to a great place in Haight-Ashbury ….”

Elizabeth turned to Jane and grabbed her arm. “Well?”

“Yeah, Jane, spill the details.” Charlotte’s eyes were gleaming.

“What do you mean?”

Elizabeth exchanged frustrated glances with Charlotte. “Come on, Jane. What happened with Charles? I saw you two in the corner talking.”

“He was mostly just telling me about his life in Los Angeles. He said he almost likes his job, and his mother seems glad to have him home. Oh, and he’s doing a lot of surfing on weekends. So, all things considered, I think it’s working out well for him.”

“Nonsense.” Elizabeth was determined to force Jane to stop underestimating her importance to Charles. “He stared at you constantly. And you know he came up here to see you.”

“No, Lizzy. He spent most of his time with his friends.”

“Because Jordan was around you most of the time,” Charlotte retorted. “What else did he say?”

“He’s thinking about trying to come up more often when Lizzy and the guys are performing. They’ve never really found anyone to replace him, and they want him to play with them on weekends sometimes.”

“A good excuse,” Elizabeth remarked to Charlotte with a sage nod.

Jane shook her head. “No, I think he just misses his music.”

“I don’t suppose he invited you to drop by to see him play?” Charlotte asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Well, yes, he did, but we shouldn’t read too much into that. He was just being polite.”

“What are we going to do with you?” Elizabeth sighed. “Yes, you should absolutely read all sorts of things into it. He’s found a way to re-establish contact with you, and I think it’s great that you’ll be seeing him regularly.”

“But he’s still down there, living the life his father dictates, and I’m still up here. Nothing has changed.”

“Maybe something will change once he comes up here more often and starts remembering what a great life he had with you,” Charlotte said. “I bet the situation in LA is a lot worse than he’s letting on.”

“We’ll just have to wait and see. But enough about me.” Jane turned to Elizabeth. “Everything is all right between you and William?”

“Can’t you tell just by looking at her?” Charlotte snickered. “In fact, is that a hickey I see?”

Elizabeth’s hand flew to her throat in horror. Given the attention William had lavished on her neck and shoulders, it was a strong possibility.

Charlotte burst into laughter. “Kidding! But see, Jane, she wasn’t sure. So apparently there was a bit of a heat wave earlier?”

“No comment.” Elizabeth picked up a small slice of the cake, mercifully one that lacked any distinguishing characteristics, and nibbled at it absently.

“William is so much in love with you.” Jane’s eyes glowed with pleasure. “The way he looks at you … I don’t think I’ve ever seen eyes that intense.”

Elizabeth knew that look; it had melted her at close range on more than one occasion. “I know he cares about me, but he hasn’t said a word about love. I think he’s still making up his mind.”

“What about you?” Charlotte’s canny gaze demanded the truth. “Is your mind made up?”

The question started Elizabeth’s heart pounding before she knew the reason why. As a startling revelation filtered into her consciousness, she understood why her heart had known the truth before her recalcitrant brain was ready to accept it. Tonight had answered many perplexing questions about William, and in the finding of the answers, she had finally lost her heart.

Her only reply to Charlotte was a small, almost shy nod. Somehow it was appropriate that she stood in this former chapel, its lofty ceiling and hallowed silence reflecting the enormity of the moment. I’m in love with William Darcy. And it isn’t William the musician I love. It’s William the man.

“Oh, Lizzy, that’s wonderful.” Jane hugged her.

“Good for you.” Charlotte remarked in an uncharacteristically gentle tone. “And whether you think so or not, Jane’s right. He adores you. So stop worrying, and enjoy it, okay?”

A jumble of thoughts flooded Elizabeth’s mind. I must be crazy, and I’m probably going to get my heart broken in the end … but I love him, and I don’t think I could stop loving him if I tried.

 

Bill Collins didn’t sleep well that night. He had a secret, and he lay awake on his gently undulating waterbed far into the night, wrestling with the covers and with his conscience.

Halfway home from the party, he discovered that he had left his leather satchel in the party room. His first impulse had been to call Elizabeth and ask her to hold it for him: it would afford an excuse to drop by late Saturday morning and perhaps spirit her away to a leisurely lunch at his favorite Indian restaurant. But the satchel held some sheet music that he wanted to lend to an early-morning piano student, so its retrieval couldn’t wait.

He retraced his path to the top of Buena Vista Avenue, finding a parking space close to the building. Some residents returning from an evening out allowed him to slip in the door with them, and he made his way to the deserted party room, where he found his satchel in a remote corner. Giggling to himself, he considered removing the music but leaving the satchel behind. Then I’d still have an excuse to drop by around lunchtime. But the satchel seemed to glower at him in mute reproach. With a silent apology, he leaned over and wrapped a comforting hand around its worn leather handles. It was his talisman, worn and battered, a gift from his long-deceased father on Bill’s graduation from Oberlin more than fifteen years earlier.

The squeaking of his shoes echoed through the dark, empty room, leading him to self-consciously quicken his pace. Soon he exited the lobby into the foggy night. As he turned toward his car, movement in the other direction caught his eye. It wouldn’t do to get mugged—or propositioned either, which was another possibility so close to Buena Vista Park late at night.

Two figures stood beside a sleek silver convertible bathed in a halo of light from a streetlamp. One was a tall man, the other a woman whom he immediately recognized. Elizabeth. He whispered the word aloud as the pair embraced, sharing a slow kiss whose passion was evident even at this distance. William Darcy, of course, was the man. Bill had known it instantly, even before William raised his head, brushing his lips against Elizabeth’s forehead while still holding her in his arms.

Bill, who had imagined embracing her in this way during many a long, lonely night, stood in the darkness, jealousy gnawing at his stomach as William dipped his head to kiss her again and then slowly released her. As both men watched her intently, she returned to the building, pausing in the doorway to smile and wave at William before she disappeared inside.

William soon drove off in his ostentatious sports car, loud enough to wake half the residents of the quiet hilltop. You know what they say about men who drive flashy cars. They’re compensating for other deficiencies. Bill snickered with spiteful satisfaction as he slid behind the wheel of his solid, reliable Volvo station wagon.

As he rode the placid waves of his waterbed, Bill wondered what to do with this information. His heart burned with anger toward William. Promised to Anne de Bourgh, the miserable cad was shaming both his fiancée and poor, innocent Elizabeth with his philandering. He doesn’t deserve either of them. It’s so typical of men like that to think they don’t need to follow rules of common decency. Although William’s talent had earned Bill’s deep veneration, the man stood for too many things that Bill despised. Born to almost unimaginable wealth, everything had been handed to him on a silver platter. No doubt his family’s connections had smoothed the way to his successful career, saving him the challenges that other musicians, even the most talented ones, had to struggle through.

And why do women always flock around tall, imposing men like him? He ought to be satisfied with winning Anne’s hand; she’s a princess. But that’s not enough for him. Now he’s seduced my Elizabeth.

Bill had noticed their exit from the party and their lengthy absence, and now he knew how they had probably spent their time. He labored to turn his thoughts away from the image of that man selfishly using such a sweet angel for his pleasure, all the while intending to discard her and form an alliance with the de Bourghs once he’d had his fun. Or maybe he intends to keep them both, with Anne as his wife and Elizabeth as his mistress. But she’s too fine, too honorable to knowingly engage in anything so tawdry.

He briefly considered sharing the news with Catherine de Bourgh, but he wasn’t certain how she would react. She would be displeased, but she might excuse William’s caddish behavior as pre-wedding sowing of wild oats, turning her wrath on poor, vulnerable Elizabeth instead. And if that happens, her career is over. With just a few phone calls, Dr. de Bourgh will see to it that no conservatory or music department hires Elizabeth, now or ever.

Although it pained him to conceal such important information from Dr. de Bourgh, his heart demanded it. I have to protect Elizabeth. I’ll pretend to believe that she and William are nothing but casual friends, but I’ll make sure she knows all about William’s arrangement with Anne. He had informed her of it only a week before at Rosings, but perhaps she hadn’t understood, or foolishly believed that she could win William away from Anne.

Of course William would choose Anne for a wife. It would be almost a royal alliance, the union of two dynasties. Elizabeth, lovely as she was, couldn’t possibly compete. But Bill would warn her, and perhaps save her in the process. She would be broken-hearted at first, but perhaps she would come to see him in a new light, as her protector, a man deserving of her trust … and her heart.

Bill Collins slept the sleep of the righteous that night as he charged through his dreams on a white horse, his armor polished to a high sheen, vanquishing the dark knight who had dared to sully the beautiful maiden’s virtue. As the crowd cheered and the queen nodded in approval, Bill gleefully accepted the maiden’s hand as his reward.

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1 The Tenderloin district is generally considered the sketchiest neighborhood in San Francisco (and the most likely place to find prostitutes, drug dealers, and strip clubs).