Fall is the most pleasant season of the year in San Francisco. Summer visitors to the city are often surprised by cool temperatures and pervasive fog, provoking the quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” But autumn settles gently over the city, bestowing the gift of clear, sunny days and moderate temperatures that often linger until winter claims center stage.

On a bright Saturday morning in mid-October, Elizabeth dashed through her condo building’s parking lot on her way home from dance class. She checked her watch and made a face. I don’t see how I’ll ever be ready in time. But a shower and change of clothes was essential. She eyed the gray sweats she wore over her leotard as she unlocked the door to the basement lobby.

Not exactly the way I want him to see me for the first time in two weeks. She rushed through the lobby and stabbed the “Up” elevator button.

A few minutes later, she flung open the door to the condo and dashed through, peeling off her sweatshirt as she made a beeline for the bathroom.

“Lizzy, is that you?” Jane emerged from her bedroom carrying a laundry basket.

“Yeah. And I’m running late.”

Jane stopped in the doorway to the bathroom. “If it would help, I can drive you down there.”

“No, it’s okay.” Elizabeth stripped off her remaining clothes and turned on the shower. “I saw Chloe in the hall, and she said if I needed a few extra minutes to get ready, she could wait.” Elizabeth was getting a ride to the airport from their neighbor Chloe, who was headed in that direction for a lunch date.

“All right, if you’re sure. By the way, what time is dinner?”

“Our reservations are at seven.”

“Well, I’m off to the laundry room. Tell William I said ‘welcome back.’ I’ll see you later.”

William had been in New York visiting his family and handling Darcy Arts Trust business. He had originally planned to return to San Francisco earlier in the week, but Georgie had begged him to stay to see her play the piano in a concert at school.

I should get used to this. I got spoiled in September. Her job was everything she had hoped for. In addition, it was a joy to be home, sharing the condo with Jane, seeing her father on a regular basis, and exploring the city she considered the best place on earth.

Above all, though, she was in love, and that heightened the other pleasures of her life. A quiet walk along the winding paths of Golden Gate Park was all the sweeter with William at her side, their hands joined. Even a night spent grading papers or preparing lesson plans had its charms when she could look up from the papers on her lap to smile into his warm brown eyes. She had rediscovered San Francisco while showing it to him, with its scenic beauty, its wide array of dining options, and its vibrant cultural scene.

They had sampled these charms together, from leisurely strolls along the water to the black-tie opening night of the opera where they had mingled with the cream of San Francisco society. With a handsome prince at my side, and black heels instead of glass slippers. The evening had unfortunately featured another element of the Cinderella story: Catherine de Bourgh as the evil stepmother, and Anne as one of the stepsisters, holding court in their private box on the mezzanine.

Catherine had issued William an invitation to accompany them—actually, he said it had been phrased more as a royal command than as an invitation. He had declined, citing an unspecified prior engagement, yet another reason why it had been so important to hide from Catherine that evening.

Ducking the de Bourghs had involved, among other things, skipping the post-performance gala reception. William and Elizabeth had nonetheless ended the evening in style, snuggling on the dance floor of the opulent Starlight Room atop the Drake Hotel. And then her prince had taken her home, his Ferrari a worthy substitute for a pumpkin coach.

The Ferrari reminded her of another evening, and she smiled as she stood under the cascading spray of water. Their drive-in movie date had been memorable, but not the way William had hoped. He had failed to realize in advance that a small, sleek convertible—without a back seat, as Caroline Bingley had infamously pointed out—was a poor choice of vehicle in which to recapture his lost youth. At first he had clenched his jaw, his eyes crackling with annoyance as Elizabeth dissolved into fits of helpless giggles at his contorted attempts to embrace her across the car’s center console, but eventually he too had been overcome by the humor of the situation. They had abandoned the drive-in to proceed to phase two of the date, and had soon settled companionably into a booth at a nearby diner enjoying an ice cream soda—with two straws, as planned.

She turned off the shower, wrapped herself in a towel, and mechanically began to dry her hair, still musing over the past month. Their argument the night of Charlotte’s party had paved the way for a new measure of trust, leading to deeper and wider-ranging conversations. One particularly revealing topic had been William’s stories of his childhood. Though he spoke of it matter-of-factly, she had pieced together a poignant image of a lonely boy adrift in a world of adults. He had grown up beloved by the women in his household and praised by strangers, but isolated from other children.

At an age when most boys spent their afternoons and weekends honing their skills and forming friendships on a variety of playing fields, William had already been a rising concert artist. This had made him different, peculiar—words that struck terror into the heart of the average adolescent. Now that Elizabeth understood the extent to which he had always felt like an outsider among his peers, it no longer seemed odd that he exhibited confidence to the point of arrogance in professional settings, yet retreated behind a wall of diffident reserve in social situations, reserve she had once misinterpreted as pompous conceit.

Of course, I wasn’t always misinterpreting. Sometimes he really is pompous. And a bit conceited. With an indulgent smile, she bent forward from the waist, continuing to dry her hair as it hung toward the ground. Love hadn’t blinded her to his faults. She was well aware that he treated nearly every unfamiliar person or situation with skepticism, if not outright scorn. Yet those few who managed to chip their way through his almost impervious shell were privileged to know a man who was loyal and generous, whose feelings ran deep, and whom she loved more with every day that passed.

His frequent stubbornness, born of reliance on his formidable intellect, was another challenge, but Elizabeth had learned that humor and unassailable logic allowed her to hold her own. In one area, she had done better than hold her own: his health. With her encouragement—and some nagging, let’s be honest here—he had begun to take better care of himself, and his body had responded. The crowning moment had come two weeks ago, when Dr. Salinger had given a triumphant William permission to begin running again on a limited basis.

Elizabeth had volunteered to take up jogging in order to keep him company, though her real objective had been to make sure he followed the doctor’s orders and didn’t overdo. But by their third jaunt together she had to admit that it was hopeless; she was no match for even an out-of-shape William, whose long strides allowed him to pull far ahead of her almost immediately. He had been polite, of course, slowing down frequently to allow her to catch up, but at the end of the run she had announced her retirement as his training partner. She sensed that he wasn’t disappointed. He seemed to prefer the solitude of running alone, and she would simply have to trust him not to overtax himself.

She was certain that the doctor’s prohibition against sex had long since been lifted; otherwise it seemed unlikely that William would be permitted to run. Yet the physical side of their relationship had not advanced since the night of Charlotte’s party. In fact, they had taken a step backward. It was as though they had approached the edge of a precipice and peeked over, only to scurry back after seeing the size of the drop that awaited them.

Elizabeth gathered her nearly-dry hair into a ponytail on her way to her bedroom. She dressed quickly in casual clothes and raced from the apartment, snatching a jacket from the closet on her way out the door to meet Chloe. She’d have to put on her make-up in the car.

Once Chloe had dropped her off at the airport, she began to feel silly. Who on earth hitches a ride to the airport in order to meet somebody? But her teaching schedule had prevented her from seeing William off on his trip to New York, and the other night on the phone he had spoken of his many solitary arrivals at airports. Had his wistful tone not convinced her to meet his flight, the broad hint that followed would have done the job. He had been careful to inform her not just of his arrival time, but of his airline and flight number.

Not that he’ll be alone this time. His foundation was in the final stages of selecting the winners of its young composers’ grants. He had returned to New York to handle part of the process, and Sonya was joining him in San Francisco to complete the work.

Elizabeth arrived at the concourse with a few minutes to spare. As she stood with other passengers’ friends and relatives just outside the security area, all craning their necks to look down the crowded concourse, she noted a rotund, black-suited limo driver holding a placard bearing the word “Darcy,” and her heart fluttered in her chest.

At last she saw him a short distance away, and she drew in a quick breath. Did he get even more handsome over the past … eleven days, two hours, and twelve minutes?

Sonya walked beside him, looking cross and tired. Elizabeth felt a touch of sympathetic amusement when she noted that Sonya seemed to be laboring to keep up. William needed frequent reminders that not everyone was over six feet tall with long, strong legs.

Her eyebrows shot up when he turned and spoke to a man whom she belatedly recognized. William hadn’t mentioned that Richard was coming along on the trip, but there he was, a glint of humor in his eyes.

William scanned the waiting crowd, an expectant look on his face. When at last he saw her, a look of pure delight spread across his features and he quickened his pace, leaving Sonya and Richard behind. She expected that the presence of his friends or the fear of being recognized in the bustling terminal would inhibit the warmth of his greeting, and she forced herself to stand still, though nothing could contain the joy dancing in her eyes. But he swept her into his arms the moment he reached her side, and they held each other tightly in wordless contentment.

His lips brushed the top of her head and she heard him breathe her name. She lifted her head from his shoulder and basked in the warmth of his sweet, boyish grin, wondering how she had survived for the past eleven days, not to mention the past twenty-six years, without him.

“Hi,” he said softly.

“Hi yourself.” She smiled up at him as he lowered his head to hers.

“Okay, you two, break it up.” It was Richard, standing close beside them.

William straightened up and directed a stare of profound resentment at his cousin.

“Shut up, Richard,” Sonya snapped.

“Kidding!” Richard’s rakish grin almost made Elizabeth laugh. “Please, do us all a favor and kiss the girl. You’ve been talking about her nonstop for the past ten days.”

Elizabeth knew better than that; William wouldn’t talk nonstop about anything. But she noted his sheepish expression as he turned back to her. “I should never have let him come along,” he grumbled.

Elizabeth smiled at Sonya. “Welcome to San Francisco.”

Despite her obvious bad mood, Sonya managed a half-smile in return. “Thank you. It’s good to see you again. And I apologize for the bad behavior of my traveling companion.”

Elizabeth thought she sensed smug satisfaction behind Richard’s penitent air. “Sorry,” he said. “I imagine you’ve been told that bad behavior is my specialty.”

Elizabeth extended her hand to Richard, her eyes twinkling. “I heard something to that effect. But I hadn’t heard that you were coming to San Francisco.”

“Spur of the moment decision. Been getting bored with my decadent lifestyle in New York, so I thought I’d seek out some fresh forms of decadence.”

“And I already regret agreeing to it.” William’s weary tone suggested that he wasn’t joking.

“Since when did I ask your permission? And don’t forget that you’re living under my folks’ roof out here, old man. A little gratitude would be in order.”

“I’m grateful—to Aunt Eleanor,” William shot back over his shoulder.

“They were like this the whole way out here,” Sonya muttered to Elizabeth, rolling her eyes. “The Bickersons Meet the Odd Couple.”

Elizabeth’s eyes flashed to Richard, anticipating his barbed retort, but he was engrossed in watching a curvaceous blonde swivel past. She stepped closer to Sonya. “What’s the matter with them?”

“Oh, they do it mostly to amuse themselves, and as a weird form of competition. It’s rare for a sincere word to come out of Richard’s mouth, and William does his best to keep up. But I think he’s had his fill of Richard’s teasing this time.”

“Is the teasing about anything in particular?”

Sonya cocked her head and raised one eyebrow. “It’s mostly about you. We’ve all noticed that William has been, for lack of a better term, pining for you, and Richard’s been having a field day. He’s about as unsentimental as they come. Anyway, you’d think the two of them were fourteen years old.”

A smile played around the corners of Elizabeth’s mouth. “I’ve been on the receiving end of some of that myself, from a good friend of mine.”

Just then, William approached with the limo driver in tow and shepherded the group toward baggage claim. Elizabeth couldn’t stop grinning as she rode the crowded escalator to the lower level of the noisy terminal.

 

William felt an unexpected sense of homecoming as he set his keys on the table in the penthouse’s marble-floored foyer.

“My God, has it really been more than five years since I’ve been here?” Richard wandered into the library, avidly gazing around the room. He ambled into the living room, stopping in front of a window to inspect the commanding view of the city afforded by their hilltop location.

“How old were you when your family moved away?” Elizabeth asked.

“Thirteen,” Richard answered without turning around. “New York is a terrific place, but San Francisco … I don’t need to explain; you’re a native, too.”

“I know exactly what you mean. I left at the same age as you, for school. This is the first time in years that I’ve been here for longer than a break between semesters.”

Richard stepped away from the windows. “I think you said your parents live in Cupertino.”

“Right. It’s nice down there, but I’m enjoying city life.”

“So, which room is mine?” Richard asked.

William, who couldn’t take his eyes off Elizabeth, didn’t answer at first. After Richard repeated his query with barely concealed amusement, a flustered William motioned in the direction of the hall. “The master suite or your old bedroom; your choice.”

“You’re not using the master suite?”

“It sent me into floral overload the first time I saw it. The walls, the bedspread, the curtains …” William shuddered. “Flowers everywhere. I moved into the guest suite.”

Richard snorted. “Not that a wall full of flowers threatens my masculinity, but I think I’ll bunk in my room for old time’s sake.” He disappeared down the hall.

As soon as Richard was gone, William grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and drew her into his arms. “Now I can finally say a proper hello.” But no sooner had their lips met than he heard Richard’s footsteps and his jovial voice.

“Okay, my suitcase is stowed. Now let’s get some lunch. I’m—Oops.”

William allowed Elizabeth to pull out of his embrace, but he kept one arm draped lightly over her shoulders. “Go away, Richard.”

“Fine. I can take a hint.”

“Apparently not.”

Richard chuckled. “Okay, okay, I’m going. I’ll head over to the Fairmont and see what Sonya’s up to. But you know, if you really want me to stay gone for a while, you could lend me the Ferrari.”

“Goodbye, Richie.” William emphasized Richard’s detested childhood nickname.

“This is your fault, Elizabeth,” Richard grumbled, but his eyes were twinkling. “Just because the old man here wants to be alone with you, I’m about to be launched on the unsuspecting city of San Francisco without a chaperone.”

“I’ll make a quick call and warn the women to take cover. I assume the men are safe?” Elizabeth gave Richard a saucy grin.

William smirked, gratified by the approval in his cousin’s eyes. He had suspected that Elizabeth would have no trouble going toe to toe with Richard.

“Well, enjoy yourselves, not that I need to tell you that. If there’s a tie on the doorknob when I get back, I’ll take a walk around the block.” Richard’s footsteps echoed in the entryway, followed by the thud of the door.

William gathered Elizabeth back into his arms. “Alone at last.”

This time nothing interrupted the rapturous sensation as her lips fused with his. He poured all his love, and all the loneliness of the past several days, into the kiss, until Elizabeth was clinging to him in helpless surrender.

He raised his head, clasping her tightly to him. “I missed you,” he whispered against her hair, inhaling the clean scent of shampoo mingled with the sweet, exotic fragrance she wore.

Her breath was warm against his neck as she deposited spine-tingling kisses in a path up to his jaw. She raised her head, her eyes soft. “Me too.”

Their lips met again in a slow, deep, thorough kiss that awoke every nerve ending in William’s body. He groaned softly as her hands caressed his neck and threaded through his hair. But as time passed, their kisses grew gradually more playful, rubbing noses and giggling.

She took his hand and led him to the sofa. William sat down and she snuggled next to him in the circle of his arm, her legs curled under her, her hand resting over his heart. The sounds of the traffic below receded to the edges of his mind, leaving him enveloped in quiet contentment.

“How have you been feeling?”

He grinned, glancing at his wristwatch. “Mrs. Reynolds would be disappointed; it took you over an hour to get around to asking.”

Elizabeth pursed her lips. “Ah, yes. Poor persecuted William. How dare we all show concern for your welfare?”

“I know everybody means well. And in your case, it doesn’t bother me.” He traced his fingers along her arm, and she nestled closer to him. “I feel fine. I still can’t run even half the distance I used to, but I can feel my stamina rebuilding slowly.”

“Okay, but what about the other things? Headaches? Fatigue? Breathlessness?”

“No, I’ve been fine.” He had a slight headache at the moment, but it was the first one in several days, and he didn’t want her getting upset over nothing. Anybody would have a headache after getting up at six in the morning and being the target of Richard’s barbs for hours on end.

“Good.” She kissed his jaw. “I really do worry about you, you know.”

He stroked her cheek. “Yes, I know.”

“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I assume you got breakfast on the flight, but that was a while ago. Maybe we should go out and get something.”

“There’s no need. I contacted Mrs. Hill a few days ago and asked her to have a lunch for two waiting when I got here.”

She sat up and gave him a mischievous grin. “You didn’t mention that while Richard was here.”

“Certainly not. I said it was lunch for two.”

Elizabeth stood up and pulled him to his feet, and they proceeded into the kitchen. They found a container of vegetable soup in the refrigerator and a baguette of French bread on the counter. As they worked together to prepare the simple meal, Elizabeth said, “You never mentioned that Richard was coming with you.”

“He just decided last night.”

“So it’s not business-related?” She paused in slicing the bread.

William frowned slightly. “No; why do you ask?”

“I thought maybe you were getting ready to resume touring, and he came out to work with you on the arrangements.”

William sighed. “No, he’s not here for that reason. But—”

The microwave beeped, announcing that the soup was ready. He carried the bowls to the table, and Elizabeth set down a basket of bread.

“I considered telling you this on the phone,” William said, pulling out a chair for her and then seating himself. “But I thought it could wait till I got here.”

“So I was right. You are ready to start touring again.” Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Almost. I saw Dr. Rosemont last week, and afterwards she and Dr. Salinger talked. When I saw her again a few days ago, she said that I could resume a normal schedule in January, based on my recent progress.”

“I’m so glad. I know how hard it’s been for you to wait around, without even a time frame.” Her smile was warmer now. “So you’ll stay out here till then?”

William hesitated. “They also gave me the go-ahead to start back on a limited basis in November.”

Her smile died. “So soon? Are they sure you’re healthy enough?”

“I have just one trip planned for November, but it’s a long one.” He absently swallowed a spoonful of soup.

“How long?”

“Ten days. Remember, I told you about the Liszt festival the Sydney Symphony is doing? The one I was hoping I wouldn’t have to miss?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“They’ve been holding out, waiting to see what would happen. They made backup arrangements just in case, but they wanted me. I’m supposed to perform over two weekends. It’s different from popping in and out of town and performing three times in as many days. I’ll be there for about two weeks, so I’ll have time to rest on the days in between. And I was thinking …”

“Hmm?” She sipped from her water glass.

“Why don’t you cancel some classes and come with me?”

She drew in a little breath and her eyes widened. “Is it during Thanksgiving break?”

“No. It’s earlier in the month.”

Her smile dimmed and she shook her head. “I wish I could. But I can’t cancel that many classes. They have strict policies about that.”

“Then get a substitute.”

“That’s a lot of time to ask colleagues to cover for me, and I’d be giving Catherine an excuse for firing me if I disappeared for that long.”

They had moved into a sensitive area now, and he realized he couldn’t press her any further. “And I guess it’s too far for you to come out for just a few days. But I’m going to miss you the whole time I’m there.”

“I’ll miss you too.” She paused. “While you were in New York, it got me thinking about what it’s going to be like once you move back there for good.”

“I thought about it too”

“I understand your situation.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, but William noted that she was absently trailing her spoon through the broth in her soup bowl. “Your life is back there, and I can’t expect you to be here all the time. So, I don’t know what options we have.”

“One way or another, I want for us to go on seeing each other.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” she said.

He leaned over and kissed her. “Then we’ll make it happen. Now, are you absolutely sure you can’t come to Australia?”

“Not for that long, at least not during the semester. And it’s too far to pop in for the weekend. But what about the rest of November? When do you get back from Down Under?”

“I don’t recall the exact date, but it’s not long before Thanksgiving.”

“Are you flying back here, or to New York?”

William reached into the bread basket. “New York.”

“And staying there through Thanksgiving?”

“Yes.” No Darcy would dare flout Gran’s dictum that they appear en masse for Thanksgiving dinner, but William had no intention of being separated from Elizabeth for that long. He had at first considered defying Gran, but then a better idea had occurred to him. He took a breath, about to explain, when Elizabeth spoke again.

“I ask because my Aunt Madeline called the evening before last and invited me to go to the Caribbean over Thanksgiving break. Uncle Edward has a medical conference the weekend before, and she wanted me there to play tourist with her while he’s in meetings. She said we’d stay on through the end of the week and just relax.”

“Did you accept?” If so, she’d simply have to tell them that she’d changed her mind.

“Not yet. I wanted to find out your plans first. I thought you’d probably be in New York, but just in case you were going to be here instead, I wouldn’t want to leave you by yourself. Anyway, I guess I’ll call her and say yes. It sounds like fun, don’t you think?”

William shook his head, responding not to her question, but to the idea. “Don’t go with them. Come to New York with me instead.”

“What?” She set down her soup spoon and regarded him in silence.

“Come to New York and spend Thanksgiving week with me. And my family, of course.”

Her eyes widened. “But—I mean, it’s so nice of you to ask, but—”

“I’m not asking to be nice. I want them to get to know you better, and vice versa.”

“Thanksgiving is a big deal in most families. Are you certain I won’t be intruding?”

William reached across the table and took her hand. “Of course you won’t. They’ll be happy to have you join us.” At least, he hoped so.

She looked skeptical, but she nodded and gave him a tentative smile. “Then, yes, I’d like to come.”

“Excellent. I’ll let Gran know. She’ll be writing you to issue an invitation of her own.”

“That’s sweet of her.”

“She’s old-fashioned about these things. She still talks about the days when it wasn’t proper for a young single lady to visit a gentleman, so she visited one of his female relatives instead.”

“And we certainly wouldn’t want to do anything improper.” Elizabeth said the word “improper” with an exaggerated British accent.

“Good. I’m glad that’s settled.” William turned his attention back to his lunch.

“I’m sorry to have to say no to Aunt Madeline, though. I didn’t tell you the most interesting part of her invitation.”

William’s mouth was full, so he raised his eyebrows to invite her to continue.

“Uncle Edward’s conference is in Barbados.”

Pemberley was located on a hilltop on the east coast of Barbados. William swallowed his bread quickly so he could speak. “That is interesting.”

“I was going to ask if you had a caretaker who could give me a tour while I was there, and that way I’d be able to visualize it when you talked about it. So your invitation does deprive me of that.”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to invite you to Pemberley some time and take you on the tour myself.”

Elizabeth stood up from the table and walked around to him, resting her hands on his shoulders. “I can’t think of anything I’d like more.”

 

As she and Jane stepped out of their cab onto Mission Street, Elizabeth marveled at how the Mission Distrct had changed over the years. Gentrification was gradually invading the neighborhood like a creeping vine, diluting both its bohemian roots and its vivid ethnic flavor. But you could still get a fabulous “Mission burrito” at many local taquerias, and burrito connoisseurs debated their relative merits with great enthusiasm. In fact, the gaudy neon sign above a nearby taqueria overshadowed the silvery double doors leading into Foreign Cinema, one of several trendy restaurants in the area.

William stood just inside the doors. “There you are, finally.”

“Oh, come on, Mr. Punctual,” Elizabeth retorted, as he leaned over for a quick kiss. “We’re only a few minutes late.”

“It was my fault,” Jane said. “I didn’t call for the cab early enough.” She smiled at William. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you. It’s good to be back. I hope you’ve been well.”

William took Jane’s hand in his briefly. Elizabeth couldn’t help but notice that his smile was subdued. She could still sense his aloofness where Jane was concerned, though she knew he was trying, and for her sake. But he doesn’t deserve too much credit. I mean, how could anybody not like Jane?

William escorted the sisters down a long hallway with polished wood floors and plain white walls. Tealight candles in small glass jars flickered on both sides, perched on narrow shelves that ran the entire length of the hallway.

“Did you see Charles at all while I was in New York?”

Jane nodded. “He came up to play with the group last Saturday night.”

It had been Charles’s second trip to San Francisco since the night of Charlotte’s birthday party. His stated purpose had been to perform with Golden Gate Jazz; however, on both evenings he and Jane had found time for private conversation. Still, Jane continued to insist that that their romantic relationship was over.

William approached the hostess’s station. “The rest of our party is here now,” he said.

“Yes, sir. We’ll have your table ready in a few minutes. The others went back to the bar, if you’d care to join them.”

William squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. “Our reservation was for 7:00, and it’s nearly ten past. Why isn’t the table ready now?”

“I’m sorry, sir. We had to rearrange things to accommodate the extra member of your party. And as you can see, it’s busy tonight.”

From the set of his jaw, Elizabeth could tell that William was fuming despite the hostess’s explanation. She threaded her arm through his. “Let’s go to the bar and order some drinks. They’re supposed to serve some interesting cocktails.” She addressed the hostess. “You’ll come get us when the table is ready?”

The hostess nodded, and Elizabeth led William firmly through the dimly-lit restaurant to the bar along the back wall, with Jane a few steps behind. “Relax,” she murmured. “I’m sure it’ll just be a few minutes, and she’s right; I forgot to call and tell her there would be five of us instead of four.”

“They still shouldn’t keep us waiting,” he insisted, his eyes stormy.

Elizabeth decided that a change of subject was in order. “You look very handsome tonight,” she said softly, stroking the sleeve of his dark gray blazer. He had paired the jacket with a lightweight black sweater instead of his usual white dress shirt. She suspected that his closet was filled with dozens of identical white shirts, all flawlessly tailored and crisply pressed.

“Trying to distract me with idle flattery?” He appeared to be doing his best not to smile, but she felt the tension leaving his body.

“You bet.” She squeezed his arm. “Is it working?”

A reluctant grin lit up his face. “Of course.” His eyes skimmed her slowly from head to toe. “And speaking of flattery—”

“Wow.” It was Richard, gesturing toward Elizabeth and Jane with his half-empty martini glass. He turned to Sonya. “Figures, doesn’t it? Will makes an entrance with not one, but two gorgeous women. Obviously the William Darcy Magnetic Field is in good operating condition this evening.”

“The William Darcy what?” Elizabeth’s eyes darted from Richard to William.

“Never mind,” William replied, glaring at Richard. “Let’s establish a cardinal rule for his visit. Don’t listen to a word he says, because none of it is true.”

“Actually, that’s not a bad rule,” Sonya said, her expression deadpan, but she winked at Richard.

“Jane, I’d like you to meet the comedy team of Fitzwilliam and Lawrence,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “Better known as Sonya Lawrence, William’s assistant, and Richard Fitzwilliam, his ne’er-do-well cousin. This is my sister, Jane Bennet.”

Sonya and Jane exchanged polite greetings. Richard deposited his glass on the bar and switched on a dazzling smile as he accepted Jane’s proffered hand. “Pay no attention to these slurs against my character. They’ll give you a completely twisted picture of me.”

Sonya and Jane seated themselves on barstools while the others clustered around, examining the menu of signature cocktails and placing their orders. While they chatted and waited for their drinks, Elizabeth examined her surroundings. The others doing the same.

“Unusual place,” Richard remarked.

He was right. The overall effect might have been best described as “industrial chic.” It had the look of an old warehouse, with high ceilings, concrete walls, and minimalist décor consisting mostly of polished wood. Large windows opened onto a courtyard offering outdoor seating. A movie was being projected on the courtyard’s rear wall.

“What’s the film?” Sonya asked.

Jane craned her neck to peer at the screen, which was partially visible through the windows. “It looks like Cinema Paradiso.” She consulted a card on the bar. “Yes, it is. I just loved that movie.”

The others nodded or spoke up in agreement, except for William. Elizabeth couldn’t tell if he was staring at her, or just staring absently with no idea where his eyes were trained. She stepped closer to him, slipping her hands beneath his jacket and resting them on his waist. “I know you’d be more comfortable at Boulevard or Acquarello,” she said quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear, “but I thought it would be fun for Sonya to go someplace a bit out of the ordinary. And even though I didn’t know Richard was coming, I think it works well for him too.”

He brushed a wisp of hair off her cheek, and his hands came to rest on her shoulders. “Don’t worry about me. I’m happy to be here.”

“You don’t need to pretend. I saw that discontented look on your face a minute ago.”

He shook his head. “It wasn’t about the restaurant. I was thinking how much I missed you while I was gone, and how much I’m going to miss you when I have to leave again.”

She slid her hands up his chest. “But isn’t it kind of silly to worry about it now, when we’re spending the evening together?”

“Good point,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Oh, and allow me to apologize.”

“For what?”

“For this.” His hands cradled her head and he bent down, his lips lingering on hers. The sweetness of the kiss made her long for another, and another after that. But they weren’t alone, and she knew that was the reason for his pre-emptive apology. They usually limited their public displays of affection to hand-holding.

“You’re forgiven,” she whispered, and his sweet, infectious grin provoked a wide smile from her. They touched foreheads, eyes closed, sharing a blissful private moment in the middle of the crowded room.

“Hey, lover boy, your drinks are ready.”

William kissed the tip of her nose and released her, haughtily ignoring Richard’s jibe.

“Like I said earlier,” Sonya murmured in Elizabeth’s ear, “it’s jealousy, nothing but jealousy.”

 

Elizabeth’s expression was rapturous as she slid another spoonful of chocolate pot de crème into her mouth. The movie had ended and begun again as they sat in the courtyard enjoying their meal, though they had paid the film scant attention beyond an occasional comment on a favorite scene.

They had enjoyed the food, from the several varieties of oysters Elizabeth and Richard gleefully sampled to the desserts and after-dinner drinks over which they were lingering now. The weather was perfect for al fresco dining, though as nightfall brought cooler temperatures Elizabeth was glad for the long sleeves on her lightweight sweater.

The most memorable element of her evening had been William’s intoxicating presence beside her: his spicy scent, the deep accents of his voice, the breadth of his shoulders beneath his soft black sweater, and the warmth of his body whenever he brushed against her. He had done so frequently, usually accompanied by a dark-eyed, lazy smile.

She savored another spoonful of the pot de crème, licking her lips in delight. Then she refilled the spoon and extended it, brimming with the rich concoction, toward William. “Want a taste?”

His eyes flared, but it was her lips that appeared to command his attention, not the spoon. “Yes, please,” he murmured in a husky voice, quirking one eyebrow.

Their heated gazes locked as she pushed the spoon gently between his open lips. When she withdrew the spoon slowly, he breathed, “Delicious.”

A loud “Ahem” from Richard reminded Elizabeth that they weren’t alone. Flustered, she turned her attention back to the others at the table. Jane and Sonya were quietly discussing San Francisco weather, politely failing to notice the heat radiating from the other side of the table. Richard gave William a brash grin and raised his glass in a mocking salute.

Elizabeth hated couples who engaged in what amounted to public foreplay; she needed to regain her composure and keep it. She smiled across the table at Richard. “I was surprised you were willing to come with us tonight, with the Yankees playing such an important game right across the bay.” The American League baseball playoffs were in progress, and tonight’s game was taking place in Oakland.

“Will told you I’m a baseball fan?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“There’s a truth and symmetry in the game that I find remarkable. I know that sounds like philosophical crap, but …” Richard shrugged. “I’m a philosopher by training, so I come by it honestly.”

“Oh, no, is he talking about baseball?” Sonya groaned. “Quick, somebody, find some toothpicks to prop our eyelids open. We’re going to need them.”

“I’ll try to stop before everybody gets to the eyes-glazing-over stage.”

“His favorite movie is Field of Dreams. And he’s constantly quoting from a book called Baseball and Philosophy.” Sonya rolled her eyes.

William nodded. “One time Sonya brought The Quotations of Chairman Mao to a meeting and they played Dueling Quotations. I seriously considered jumping out the office window after about fifteen minutes.”

“Ignore them,” Richard said to Elizabeth, waving a dismissive hand at his detractors. “It’s a remarkable book. A professor of mine at Yale wrote one of the essays, called ‘Baseball and the Search for an American Moral Identity.’ It should be required reading for everyone in this country.”

Elizabeth found his enthusiasm, despite its unlikely catalyst, charming. It was interesting to see Richard minus his trademark devil-may-care irreverence. It occurred to her that perhaps William wasn’t the only member of the Darcy family who built walls to hide behind. “William said that you took him to his first game when he was nine.”

“My father actually took us—Aunt Anna wouldn’t let Will go anywhere without an adult back then—but it was my idea. Later we were allowed to go on our own. Will didn’t enjoy baseball the way I did, but I think he liked the change of pace.”

“It was like running away, but it wasn’t against the rules,” William remarked.

Richard snorted. “It wasn’t much like running away, not with Allen waiting to drive us home. Gran and Aunt Anna didn’t think much of the idea of us—mostly Will, really, I don’t think they gave a rip in my case—taking the subway to the Bronx.”

Considering what Elizabeth had already heard about William’s sheltered childhood, that didn’t surprise her. “What about tomorrow’s game? Are you going?”

“You bet Sonya dug around and found me some tickets. That’s assuming the Yankees win tonight; otherwise it’s all over. Are you a fan?”

“A casual fan, you might say. Did William tell you we went to a Giants game a few weeks ago?”

Elizabeth had watched in affectionate amusement that evening as William maintained a scorecard with great solemnity, a skill he had learned in those early days at Yankee Stadium with Richard. The Giants had lost, but it had been a pleasant evening all the same, enhanced by the magnificent views afforded by the ballpark’s bayside location.

“A good cigar would be just the thing right now.” Richard leaned back in his chair, staring into his glass of port.

“I didn’t know you smoked.” Elizabeth said, wrinkling her nose.

“I don’t, except a cigar now and then. Even the old man over there has been known to indulge in a good cigar on occasion.”

Elizabeth grimaced at William. “You’re kidding.”

He shrugged, sipping his cognac. “I’ve probably had at most half a dozen cigars in my life, all at Pemberley.”

“You’re making me want one even more,” Richard said in a plaintive tone. He turned to Jane. “They have a local brand in Barbados that’s damn good. I bring home a box or two every time we go down there.”

“Charles told me a story once about the three of you smoking cigars at Pemberley,” Jane replied. “He said Mrs. Darcy smelled the smoke and threw you out of the house. Apparently she was pretty angry.”

“I’m sure she was,” Sonya said with a sidelong glance at the two men. “Mrs. Darcy hates smoking, and she especially loathes cigar smoke. One time Richard thought he’d get away with lighting up in the roof garden at the New York house. Let’s just say he never tried it again.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” William said. “Sorry I missed the fun.”

“But you can imagine the lecture I got. You know what happens when Gran gets her dander up.”

William’s grandmother sounded even more formidable than Elizabeth had gathered from their two encounters in New York. And I don’t think I’m her idea of a proper girlfriend for William. Thanksgiving in New York is going to be … interesting. She sighed loudly, earning her a concerned glance from William.

“Are you okay?” he asked softly. He’d had his arm stretched across the back of her chair since finishing dinner, and now he rested his hand lightly on her shoulder.

“I’m fine. What about you? You look tired.” She had noticed him yawning behind his hand occasionally for the past half hour or so. Although his health was improving, she knew that he still grew fatigued easily.

William set down his empty glass. “I think jet lag is catching up with me. Is everyone finished?” He signaled a passing server for their check.

“I’m ready for a good night’s sleep,” Sonya said with a yawn. “This restaurant was a great choice, Elizabeth. Thanks for including me, even though I’m just the hired help.”

Richard snorted. “If we ever started treating her like the hired help, you’d hear the squawking all the way downtown. Besides, I’m just part of William’s entourage too.”

“Is that what you tell the women you meet?” Elizabeth asked.

“Fat chance. I tell them I’m one of the idle rich, with piles of money but no ambition. You’d be amazed how well that works. I second what Sonya said about the restaurant, by the way. Great choice.”

“I’m glad you liked it.”

“And now, since my cousin and his hired help are such wimps, it falls to me to uphold the reputation of New Yorkers. What do you say, Jane? Want to show me some hot night spots?”

Elizabeth didn’t like this development; she didn’t want to risk Jane becoming Richard’s next conquest. But Jane accepted the invitation before Elizabeth could intervene.

“I want to go to the ladies’ room before we leave,” Elizabeth said, pushing back her chair with more force than she had intended. “Jane, want to come with me?”

As soon as they reached the ladies’ room, Elizabeth went on the offensive. “Be careful with Richard. Sure, he’s charming, but from what I’ve heard he’s the original Mr. Love ’em and Leave ’em. And his definition of love is ‘one night between the sheets.’”

Jane smiled at Elizabeth’s reflection in the mirror. “Don’t worry, Lizzy. He’s not my type, but he’s intelligent and he’s good company, so what’s the harm in showing him around? Besides, this way you and William can be alone for a while.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. You’re doing this for my sake.”

“Not entirely. But you and William need some private time. It was so obvious tonight. In fact …” Jane stared at Elizabeth intently, and then shook her head. “No, never mind.”

“What?” Elizabeth could feel her face growing warm.

“Well … okay, I guess it’s best if I just say this. If things go further tonight than they have so far, and you need protection—”

“That’s not going to happen. Not yet.” But even as she said the words, she doubted them.

“Sometimes things happen that we don’t expect. Just in case, I wanted you to know that I have a few condoms in my nightstand.”

“Thanks, Jane, but I’m not—really, we’re not going to—” Elizabeth couldn’t seem to finish a sentence.

The door opened, and Sonya peeked in. “William arranged for some cabs, and they’ll be here in just a minute. Everything okay?”

Elizabeth took a shaky breath. “Everything’s fine. Ready to go, Jane?”

William stood outside the door waiting for them. He took Elizabeth’s hand and led her down the long hallway. She ordered her knees to stop trembling, but to no avail. I guess they’re not following instructions tonight. With a small shrug, she passed through the double doors and into the cool night air.