Outside the restaurant, the group said its farewells. Sonya took a cab back to the Fairmont Hotel, Jane and Richard headed for parts unknown in another cab, and Elizabeth found herself ensconced in a third with William. After giving directions to the cab driver, he settled back on the seat and slid his arm around her shoulders.

Elizabeth’s eyes were on Jane and Richard’s taxi, which was directly ahead of them. “I don’t like the idea of Richard going off who knows where with Jane. Don’t get me wrong; I like him. But I get the impression that he’s constantly on the prowl for a new conquest.”

“Don’t worry. While you were in the ladies’ room I told him to behave himself.” William’s fingers combed gently through her hair.

“Oh, and of course he always does exactly what you tell him.”

Grinning, William kissed her cheek. “Richard doesn’t spend many nights alone, but seduction and manipulation aren’t his style. He’s forthright about what he wants, and he seeks out women who want the same thing. Besides, I’m sure Jane can take care of herself.”

William had a point. Jane’s tendency to see only the best in people often provoked a protective response from Elizabeth, but in this particular area it was unnecessary. Jane had been besieged by male attention since her early teens and had long since learned to fend off overeager suitors with grace and tact. “I guess you’re right.”

“Good. Now let’s forget about them and concentrate on us.” He dipped his head and she felt the potent sensation of his lips nuzzling her neck. His deep voice resonated in her ear. “Do you know what I dreamed about every night in New York?”

“No.” The word sounded like a whimper, the result of the gentle scrape of his teeth against her ear lobe.

“You, cara,” he whispered. “I dreamed of you, lying in my arms, in my bed.”

A shiver coursed through her. “William—”

“Shhh.” He drew his thumb slowly along her lips and cupped her cheek in his hand. As she watched, mesmerized, he lowered his head slowly, so very slowly. His lips teased hers in a persuasive caress, his tongue tracing the outline of her lips. She wound her arms around his neck and pressed against him, and the kiss exploded in a tidal wave of mutual hunger.

His hand slipped under her sweater, his feather-light touch raising goose bumps on a journey across her bare stomach to envelop her breast. He dragged his mouth away from hers, and she felt his warm breath on her face as he spoke in a deep, throaty growl. “I’m tired of dreaming. I’m tired of aching for you day and night, of wanting you almost more than I can stand. Haven’t we waited long enough?”

Yes. Yes, we have. I want you so much. Her mind recoiled from this reckless sentiment, but her body, firmly in the driver’s seat, quivered with need. His dark eyes bored into hers and his fingers slipped inside her bra, teasing her sensitive flesh until she moaned deep in her throat. Starving to feel his kiss again, she buried her hands in his hair and pulled his head down to hers. He pressed her back against the seat, his greedy mouth plundering hers, her last shreds of resistance vaporized by the heat of the kiss.

She tugged on his thin sweater, pulling it out of the waistband of his trousers with a trembling hand. She simply had to touch him, to share with him some small measure of the rapture his caresses were bestowing on her. He groaned against her mouth as she spread her fingers across his stomach, stroking along its flat planes. He felt so warm, so strong.

William raised his head, an almost wild look in his eyes. His voice had a desperate edge as he rasped, “Yes, cara. Please, touch me—”

The cab lurched to a stop as a pedestrian, illuminated in the headlights, ran across the street directly in front of them. The driver honked his horn, gesturing angrily.

“Are you okay?” William enfolded her securely in his arms, his chest heaving.

At first her mind was too muddled to formulate an answer. Then the world snapped into focus and she became painfully aware of her surroundings. A glance out the window revealed that they were only a few blocks from her building.

“I’m … I’m fine.”

“Good,” he drawled, his mouth smothering hers as he resumed his tantalizing caresses.

Hold on a minute. Her mind clawed its way back into control. You’re being fondled in the back seat of a cab, and the driver is probably enjoying the show in his rear-view mirror. That may be why he didn’t see the pedestrian till it was almost too late. If you’re going to do this, can’t you at least wait till you’re at home without an audience?

Even her overheated body had to admit the sense of this argument. She pulled her mouth away from William’s and whispered urgently, “Stop. Please.”

He frowned at her, a drugged look in his eyes. “What?”

“I said stop. It would be better if we waited till—”

“I don’t want to hear the word ‘wait’ anymore.”

She grasped his arm, stopping the movements of his hand. “I just mean that we should wait until—”

William yanked his hand out from under her sweater as though her flesh had burned him. “I am so damned tired of waiting,” he said in a tight voice. “I’ve done nothing but wait for months.”

The cab pulled up in front of her building. Elizabeth tried again. “Would you please give me a chance to explain? I was trying to say that—”

“You don’t need to explain.” She could see him struggling to hide his emotions, but the bitterness in his voice was unmistakable. “If waiting is what you want, then we’ll wait some more.”

Elizabeth sighed loudly, her teeth clenched. She was surprised when, instead of paying the driver, William leaned forward and said, “Please wait a minute.”

He jumped out of the cab and strode around to her side, opening the door. As she emerged, his cool gaze met hers. He walked beside her to the building entrance in silence as she fumbled in her purse for her keys. When they reached the door, he turned to face her. “Good night, Lizzy.”

“You’re not going to come up for a while?”

His face was expressionless. “I think it’s best if I go home and get some rest. I’m tired, and I might say something I’ll regret later.”

As far as Elizabeth was concerned, that train had already departed the station. But he looked exhausted, his bleary eyes lacking their usual intensity, his shoulders slumped in contrast to his typical upright posture. This is where his condition gives him an unfair advantage. I’m standing here feeling sorry for him instead of whacking him upside the head like he deserves.

She spoke in a measured tone. “All right, maybe that’s best. But when you’re ready to listen to reason, I have some things to say and I intend for you to hear them.”

Elizabeth unlocked the door to the lobby. She paused in the doorway and turned back with an inquiring look, giving him one more chance to change his mind. He simply stared at her, his hands in his pockets. Shrugging, she entered the building, leaving him alone on the front step.

By the time she flung open the door to her condo and dropped her purse on the kitchen table, regret and indignation were locked in a struggle for control. Regret temporarily rocketed into the lead. If she had forced the issue, he would have come upstairs, and they could have talked things out. And after that, we could have picked up where we left off in the cab.

Elizabeth wasn’t unsympathetic to his predicament. His patience and consideration had been, on the whole, admirable, all the more so because she was probably one of the few women ever to refuse him anything. She had often witnessed the attention William garnered from women, sometimes due to his celebrity status, but often just because of his handsome face and the aura of power and privilege he exuded. Richard’s quip about the “William Darcy Magnetic Field” made perfect sense.

At events on campus, she could always locate him by seeking out the swarm of female students surrounding him. Waitresses loved to flirt with him; one had even written her phone number on the check, presenting it to William with a suggestive smile. He had never given Elizabeth the slightest cause for discomfort or jealousy. But what if he doesn’t want to wait anymore? He might decide that since I’m not willing, he’ll find someone who is.

Her feet, operating on automatic pilot, had propelled her down the hall, and she found herself in her bedroom. She undressed, tossing her clothes on a chair, and pulled an oversized pink tee shirt over her head. As she stared at her pale, tense reflection in the mirror, her head was filled by a vision of William lying in another woman’s embrace, his hands eagerly exploring her voluptuous curves.

Before she knew what she was doing, she was in the kitchen, grabbing the phone. She would call him and explain somehow, and then—

No. Stop this. Once before she had allowed herself to be pushed into intimacy against her better judgment, and she refused to repeat the mistake. After all, I never agreed to a timetable or a deadline for sleeping with him. How dare he act as though he has some sacred right to dictate the terms of our physical relationship? Indignation had surged into the lead in her internal battle, and Elizabeth clutched it like a life preserver.

She opened the refrigerator, not truly hungry but seeking a distraction. The freezer yielded a container of peanut butter ice cream, but she scowled when she found it nearly empty. Still, a few spoonfuls of ice cream were better than none.

Now, for something salty to go with the ice cream. She located a half-empty bag of pretzel sticks in the pantry, grabbed a spoon, and hauled her booty into the living room, digging the last of the ice cream from the bottom of the container as she walked. I feel better already.

Yeah, right. You’re a terrible liar.

 

William stalked through the ornate lobby of his building with only one goal in mind: getting up to the penthouse where he could be alone. The cab ride from Elizabeth’s building had been an exercise in humiliation. The driver had said nothing, but William was certain he had seen an insolent smirk on the man’s face. And why not? He probably saw and heard everything. Ordinarily William would have been indifferent to the opinion of someone as insignificant as a cab driver, but the sting of Elizabeth’s rejection was all the more painful because there had been a witness.

Upstairs, his remaining energy exhausted, he dragged himself through the foyer and down the hall. He collapsed on his bed and buried his head in a pillow.

He had spent the evening engulfed in a haze of desire, scarcely aware of anyone but Elizabeth. She had again exhibited the provocative girl-woman quality that never failed to tie him into intricate knots. Her lush curves had filled her clingy black sweater to perfection, yet the lace at the sweater’s neckline and cuffs lent a touch of sweet innocence. Her legs, revealed by her skirt and enhanced by sheer black stockings, had nearly stopped his heart, yet the pleats in the skirt lent her a youthful air.

It wasn’t only her appearance that had driven him into such a volatile state. To say that he had missed her during his time in New York was like saying that the Pacific Ocean was a bit on the large side. Their lengthy telephone conversations had only increased his appetite for her company. Any remaining doubts he might have harbored about his wishes for the future had been swept away. He couldn’t live without her, not now, not ever.

And to what depths had love brought him tonight? Pawing her in the back of a taxi like … like Richard, though I suppose he has more class than that. And being rejected yet again. I’m not sure how many more times I can bear to hear her say ‘no.’

For her sake, he had done his best to be patient. William “Patience” Darcy, yes, indeed. He had reined in his passions, waiting for Elizabeth to lead the way to greater intimacy. His task had become doubly challenging once Dr. Salinger had removed the prohibition on sex, but for her sake, William had summoned up all his self-control.

But she hasn’t led the way. We’ve been standing still. And I think I know why. She enjoyed his kisses and wasn’t averse to his touch in the right circumstances, but she obviously didn’t crave him as he craved her. She wasn’t tortured by fantasies in which he made love to her until they were both too weak to move. Her body didn’t burn at his slightest touch. And she had rejected him, pushed him away. Again.

She doesn’t love me, at least, not the way I love her. And he was a fool to expect anything else. His mother had warned him that his emotional nature, like hers, could cause him pain. “That’s why your music is so powerful,” she had said, not long before her death. “But you and I have hearts that love too deeply, and are too easily broken.”

He rolled onto his back, staring at the faint beams of light flickering on the ceiling and longing for sleep to claim him.

 

Elizabeth lay curled up on the living room sofa under a cream-colored afghan. The ice cream container stood on the coffee table, empty except for the crumpled-up pretzel bag Elizabeth had stuffed inside it. The flickering of the television provided the only light as it played an old black-and-white movie.

Jane still wasn’t home. Elizabeth wasn’t sure what time it was, but it seemed as though she had been lying on the sofa for at least a week awaiting her sister’s return. Jane would be able to help her to sort through the mass of conflicting impulses warring for control. Then again, how do I know for sure that Jane’s coming home tonight? She might be in bed at the penthouse right now.

Elizabeth nearly shuddered in a visceral reaction to the phrase “in bed at the penthouse.” Although she hadn’t admitted it when William spoke of his dreams, she’d had dreams of her own in which she lay clasped against his strong, lean body as they sank together into the softness of her bed, dreams from which she awoke trembling with fierce longing for his touch.

She struggled to distract herself from such incendiary thoughts by returning to the question of her sister’s whereabouts. They’re probably just out searching for the perfect martini. Jane wouldn’t sleep with Richard—probably not ever, and certainly not on a first date, if it could even be considered a date.

And as for me, not only don’t I leap into bed on first dates, I don’t tiptoe into bed on … let’s see, how many times have I been out with William?

The raucous sound of an ad for a furniture warehouse blared from the television, the spokesperson shouting a rapid-fire volley of words. Grimacing, Elizabeth reached over her head, fumbling blindly for the remote control and knocking it onto the floor. She bent over to retrieve it and clicked the “mute” button, plunging the room into silence. Then she resumed her recumbent position on the sofa, stuffing a throw pillow behind her head and bundling the afghan around her against the increasingly chilly air wafting in the open window beside the sofa.

What am I waiting for? I love him, and I’ve never felt this way about anyone. I’ve been imagining what it would be like to have him in my bed, and I know how much he wants me. I’m sure most people who know we’re a couple assume that we’ve been sleeping together for a while now. Charlotte thinks I’m crazy to turn him down, and even Jane thinks it’s time.

Is this still about Michael?

She briefly considered the possibility, but then shook her head slowly. Michael is in the past, where he belongs. But the lessons she had learned then had stayed with her. She had always known that casual sex wasn’t for her; she could give her body only to a man she loved. But Michael had taught her not to give that gift without being certain that she was loved in return.

Certainty was a difficult standard to meet when it came to another person’s feelings. For weeks, Jane and Charlotte had insisted that William was in love with her, but she had refused to accept their assessment.

You have good reasons to be skeptical. The judgmental voice that lurked in the fringes of her mind, awaiting opportunities to strike, spoke in mocking tones. For openers, he’s never told you that he loves you.

Yes, he has. Her immediate retort surprised her. Back in New York, in my apartment.

The voice was unimpressed. Talk is cheap. He just said that to try to get you into bed, and you know it.

But she didn’t know it, not anymore. Doesn’t it say something that he focuses completely on me when we’re together, that he treats me like I’m the only woman in the world? How many guys have I dated whose eyes would drift away in the middle of conversations if an attractive woman walked by? Or who would take me to a party but leave with someone else?

Big deal. So maybe he’s just subtler, or a better player, than the others. Try again. What has he done that shows any sort of commitment to you and to the relationship?

How about the fact that he called me at least once a day, sometimes twice, from New York? That he wanted to hear everything I was doing, even silly little details, and to tell me all about his day too?

Nobody’s disputing that he likes you. But I noticed that he stayed away for four extra days. So he wasn’t that anxious to see you after all.

He stayed for Georgiana’s sake. Of course he wanted to make his sister happy. That’s a good thing.

Yeah, whatever. Let’s just make a note here that you’re playing second fiddle—or second viola, ha, ha—to his sister. Next?

It was time for the heavy artillery. What about the fact that he asked me to spend Thanksgiving with his family so we could all get to know one another better? An invitation like that is usually a sign of some pretty serious intentions.

If you’re so sure of his feelings, why are you all alone, curled up in the fetal position on the sofa?

Elizabeth could feel her interrogator losing steam. The invitation to New York, and his wish for her to get to know his family, had to mean that he loved her, regardless of his silence on the subject.

But there’s being sure, and then there’s being sure. You thought Michael love you, and you couldn’t have been more wrong.

So apparently it was still about Michael.

The doorbell rang, startling her. Jane must have forgotten her key; no one else would be stopping by so late.

“Just a minute!” She hopped up from the sofa, shivering as the afghan landed on the floor and the chilly air raised instant goose bumps on her skin. She retrieved the afghan and draped it around her shoulders, clutching it to herself as she crossed the room. She was about to fling the door open, but some instinct told her to check the peephole first.

When she saw William standing in the hallway, her heart began to pound. She reached for the doorknob, but an involuntary downward glance stopped her. Despite the additional coverage offered by the afghan, the pink shirt left a significant expanse of her legs bare. Considering the subject of their argument, a little more coverage seemed like a good idea. She opened the door a crack and peeked out. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and she shut the door.

She dashed down the hall, nearly stubbing her toe as she rounded the corner into her bedroom. She rejected the idea of throwing on the clothes she had worn earlier that night, which lay gathering wrinkles on her chair. Then she spied her bathrobe peeking out of the closet and shrugged into it. She combed her fingers through her hair, attempting to tame it as she ran back down the hall.

She had never seen the ordinarily dapper William looking so disheveled, from his wrinkled trousers to his unruly hair and the stubble forming a dark shadow on his jaw and neck. His bleary eyes held an anxious expression. “May I come in?”

“Of course.” She stepped back and allowed him to enter, astonished by his sudden appearance at this hour, not that she knew what hour it was. “I assume somebody downstairs let you into the building?”

“Yes. I had to wait for a while for someone to come along.”

“Why didn’t you just buzz me on the intercom?”

“I was afraid you’d tell me to go away. But I thought if you saw me, you’d take pity on my wretched state.”

Elizabeth pressed her lips together, working hard to stifle a smile. His expression rivaled that of a sad puppy as he shifted from one foot to another, his hands shoved in his trouser pockets. She considered waiting for him to mount the first salvo of their discussion, but she sensed that he needed some sign of capitulation from her. “Come sit down and let’s talk.”

She saw relief flood his face as he followed her to the living room sofa. As he seated himself, she made a brief detour to close the window.

“Of course you know why I’m here.” He was watching her progress around the room intently, perhaps trying to gauge her mood.

She switched on a lamp, turned off the TV, and seated herself beside him. “Let’s assume for a moment that I’m not psychic. Talk to me, okay? I thought you were going home to get some sleep.”

“I did. Go home, that is. But I couldn’t sleep.”

“Neither could I. I’ve been lying here watching TV and ridding the kitchen of the menace of junk food by eating it.”

“I came because …” He paused, looking so miserable that she wanted to draw him into her arms and cradle his head on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Lizzy. Can you forgive me?”

The sincere contrition in his voice, especially coming from a man for whom apology wasn’t a natural talent, melted the remnants of her anger, but she maintained a neutral expression. “Forgive you for what, precisely?”

He shifted awkwardly and sighed. “For boorish behavior in the extreme. And for blaming you for my frustration. You’re the cause of it, but that doesn’t mean you’re to blame, and it certainly doesn’t mean I have the right to lash out at you.” He was staring at her, his eyes watchful and tense.

She covered his hand with hers. “Apology accepted.”

He turned his hand, entwining his fingers with hers, and a weary smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “Thank you.” He leaned forward and kissed her, a delicate, lingering touch that she felt down to her toes. “You’re the last person I would ever want to hurt, Lizzy. I hope you know that.”

“I do. But we’re stubborn, both of us, and sometimes we’re better at talking than at listening.”

William turned a curious glance on her. “Which reminds me. You were trying to tell me something in the taxi.”

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. She was hoping he’d forgotten that. “I don’t think it matters now.”

“You’re blushing, so it must matter.” He brushed a tendril of hair away from her cheek.

Hmm. What’s a graceful way to say this? She decided that honesty would serve her best. “Okay. I didn’t mean ‘wait’ as in ‘wait a month’, or a week, or even a day. I meant ‘wait till we get upstairs.’ You did notice we weren’t alone, right? Cab driver in the front seat and all that?”

He winced. “Again, I’m sorry. I know they say that cab drivers have seen everything, but I never intended to compromise our privacy that way.”

“I’m glad we agree on that.”

He hadn’t made any comment on the first part of her remark. She was busy congratulating herself on her escape when his eyes widened and he shot a confused glance at her. “Hold on. You meant ‘wait till we get upstairs’?”

“And the other shoe drops.”

“You were trying to tell me that you were ready to make love?”

“I thought I was.”

William heaved a loud sigh, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “You were inviting me upstairs to your bedroom, and I didn’t notice because I was too busy complaining that you hadn’t invited me up to your bedroom?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

He bent forward, elbows resting on his knees, and massaged his temples. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I did that.” He gave her a sidelong glance, a ghost of a smile flitting across his face. “You must have thought I’d lost my mind.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. But it would have been a good idea for you to delay the freak-out until I’d finished my sentence.”

He settled back against the sofa. “It was the word ‘wait.’ By now it’s like a red flag in front of a bull for me.”

“I know you’re frustrated,” she said gently, taking his hand and raising it to her lips. “And I’m glad that you’re so attracted to me. But … I know this is the last thing you want to hear right now, but by the time I got back upstairs, I realized that I wasn’t quite as ready as I thought.”

“But why not? Why don’t you want me?”

The pain in his voice astonished her. “Is that really what you think?”

“What else should I think? I know you asked for some time, but that was weeks ago. I was sure you’d be ready by now. And if you weren’t, it had to mean that you simply don’t want me.”

She turned toward him on the sofa and took his face in her hands, his stubbly jaw rough against her palms. “You are so wrong,” she said in a firm tone, looking deep into his eyes. “Listen to me. You’re the sexiest man I’ve ever met. I’m not even sure who’d be in second place, you’re so far in the lead.”

His eyes were wary, but she saw the muscles in his jaw begin to relax. “I’m glad to hear it. But I’m going to need quite a bit of convincing.”

Okay. Right now, the ego really does need to be fed. “Being the sexiest man in the world isn’t enough? Okay, then, how about this? Seeing you or hearing your voice makes me weak in the knees. And whenever I’m close to you, it just makes me want to be even closer.” She leaned forward. “And by the way, Mr. Darcy, you are an amazing kisser.”

“That takes two.” She wasn’t surprised when he covered her mouth with his, offering a slow, thorough demonstration of his skill that left her hungry for more.

She was slightly breathless by the time he lifted his head and murmured, “Please tell me more. I’m enjoying this.”

“I have a terrible feeling I’ve created a monster. But, okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve had some … dreams about you.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, really? Any you’d like to share?”

Elizabeth laughed softly. “I don’t think that would be wise. By the way, you’re particularly sexy when you’ve got that wicked glint in your eye, like you do now.”

The wicked glint intensified, nearly obliterating Elizabeth’s self-restraint. “You probably shouldn’t have told me that.” He lowered his head again, enfolding her in his arms.

A few minutes later, they sat back against the sofa, nestled close together. Elizabeth kissed his cheek. “I hope that dispenses with the notion that I don’t find you tempting.”

“I suppose so.”

She sensed that his grudging tone was only partly a tease, and decided to try to cajole him into a more cheerful mood. “You’re just not accustomed to any woman turning you down, are you? Ordinarily I’m sure they fall at your feet, rending their garments while begging you to take them on the spot.”

He snickered. “Absolutely. That happens all the time. Except, that is, with the one woman I wish would behave that way.”

“Oh, you’d just be bored. I bet the only reason you find me interesting is because of the challenge.” She sometimes wondered if this was true.

“The word ‘challenge’ doesn’t even scratch the surface where you’re concerned. But can we be serious for a minute?”

Elizabeth looked up at him, eyebrows raised.

“You haven’t explained why we’re still waiting. If this is something we both want, then I don’t understand what’s standing in our way.”

“There’s more to it than the fact that I want you.” She was surprised how good it felt to say it out loud. “I do, very much. But our relationship matters, too; I mean, where we stand as a couple.”

He frowned slightly. “Well, of course, but don’t you think everything’s going well?”

“I do, mostly. But … I’m not sure quite how to explain it.”

He sat quietly, stroking her arm, demonstrating the patience that had deserted him a few hours before. Finally an answer crystallized in her mind, and she decided to illustrate it with an example. “Back in late August, did your doctor tell you that you couldn’t have sex for a while?”

“How did you know that?” He shoved a hand roughly through his hair. “I didn’t tell anyone but Richard. Did he—”

“No, he didn’t. I figured it out from something you said the day of your doctor’s appointment.”

“So you knew about that all the time?”

“I didn’t know, precisely, but I had a strong suspicion. Do you understand why I brought this up? You couldn’t talk to me about it, and I was afraid to ask for fear of upsetting you.”

“Can you blame me for not wanting anyone to know?”

“But I’m not just anyone. I thought we were closer than that.”

“That’s the problem. You’re my girlfriend, and I didn’t want you to …” He shrugged and shook his head. “I doubt a woman can understand what it’s like for a man to be unmanned.”

“But you weren’t. You were just supposed to wait till you were healthier.”

“All I know is, I felt like a eunuch.”

Elizabeth managed not to laugh at the disgust with which he spat out the word ‘eunuch,’ but she couldn’t erase the smile from her face. “Poor William.”

“It’s not funny.”

“I’m sorry.” She took a breath and wiped away her smile. “I assume the ban has been lifted by now?”

He nodded reluctantly. “A few weeks ago.”

“I understand that it was embarrassing, but doesn’t that seem like something two people ought to be able to talk about if they’re contemplating taking their relationship to the next level?”

William hesitated. “It’s difficult for me to discuss personal things. It’s not because of you, Lizzy. I don’t share things like that with anyone.”

“I know you’re a private person, but I still think it’s a problem. It makes me feel like you’re hiding things.” Just like Michael did. A tremor went through her.

“What about you? You told me the night of the Rosings party that you’d had some bad experiences with men that made you cautious. But you’ve never trusted me with the details.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “Don’t worry about that.”

He withdrew his arm from around her shoulder. “So you expect me to open up, but you’re entitled to keep secrets.”

Elizabeth was trapped, and she knew it. She owed him some explanation, but she had never told the story to anyone but Jane and Charlotte, and she had kept a few details even from them. “I’m moving on from it, and there are some things I’d rather just leave behind. But how about if I give you the abridged version?”

“If it’s too painful, you don’t have to tell me.”

She was tempted to open the escape hatch he’d just given her, but he had been right earlier. If she expected him to trust her with his secrets, she had to do the same. “There was a guy in college. I thought I loved him, and he said he loved me. But it was a lie, designed to manipulate me into …” She stopped and pressed her lips together.

William tightened his arm around her, and she nestled into his comforting warmth.

“Anyway,” she continued, “he used my feelings against me to take what he wanted, and afterwards he humiliated me. It was my first serious relationship, or at least I thought it was. And the first time I’d ever been … physically intimate with anyone. I swore I’d never let a man hurt me that way again. Since then I’ve been … wary where men are concerned.”

He caressed her cheek, and she turned her head to brush her lips against his knuckles. “I’m sorry,” he said, the sympathy in his deep voice bringing tears to her eyes. “He was a fool if he didn’t appreciate you.”

She blinked back her tears, ordering them to stop. “I was the fool. If you walk around being na´ve and stupid, people are going to take advantage of you.”

“You might have been innocent, but you could never be stupid, cara.” His fingers continued to stroke her cheek in a soothing rhythm.

“I like it when you call me that.”

“Good, because I like saying it.”

They were quiet for a short time, and then Elizabeth spoke softly. “So that’s the problem. When it feels like we don’t quite trust each other, I start wondering what’s going on, and I start remembering, and …” She sighed. “But it isn’t fair to you. You’re nothing like Michael.”

“That was his name?”

She nodded. “I know it’s irrational to let the past interfere with the present when they’re completely unrelated.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.” She took his hand in hers.

“I can’t say that I understand, precisely, but I want you to be able to trust me. So the next time you think I’m hiding something, ask me about it. I promise I’ll tell you the truth. And if you think I’m evading a question, just remind me of my promise.”

“Ooh, this is my big chance to find out about all your ex-girlfriends.”

“Let me rephrase that,” he replied, grinning. ”I promise I’ll either tell you the truth or tell you to mind your own business.”

They fell silent after that. Elizabeth burrowed closer, savoring the warmth of his body, and her eyes drifted shut. She felt him move and opened her eyes to find him grimacing and massaging his temples with one hand.

“Are you okay? Do you have a headache?”

“It’s just from fatigue. I was up early this morning, and with the time difference between San Francisco and New York, it’s been a long day.”

She sat up straight, jolted out of her languorous state by a flood of worry. He rarely got headaches anymore, unless he’d been hiding them from her. “Are you sure that’s all it is?”

“I think so. I get jet lag headaches from time to time, especially if I start the trip sleep-deprived.”

“Let’s see what we can do about that.” Elizabeth rose to her feet. “I’ll be right back.”

A few minutes later, she emerged from the kitchen balancing two mugs of William’s favorite herbal tea and a bottle of ibuprofen.

His smile was warm, his eyes crinkling at the corners as she approached him. “You’re the prettiest nurse I’ve ever seen.”

Elizabeth resumed her seat beside him, watching as he chased down two tablets with a sip of the tea. “Anything else I can get for you?”

He raised his eyebrows. “As a matter of fact, there is. Another time when I had a headache, I rested my head on a particularly comfortable pillow.” His dimples flashed briefly.

She slid down to one end of the sofa and placed a throw pillow on her lap. “Be my guest.”

He deposited his mug of tea on the coffee table, kicked off his shoes, and lowered his head onto her lap, stretching out his long legs with a deep sigh. “Mmmm. This is the best medicine in the world.”

Their eyes met in a long, contented gaze as she stroked his hair, smoothing the thick waves. As she watched, his eyelids drooped and closed, the slow, regular rise and fall of his chest announcing that he was asleep.

Elizabeth bit her lip as she stretched to reach for the lamp, doing her best not to disturb William as she switched it off. Then she leaned her head against the sofa back, her fingers still toying with his hair, and closed her eyes.

 

Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them, squinting against the sudden flood of light.

“Lizzy?” It was Jane’s voice. She continued, but in an abruptly hushed tone. “Oh, I’m sorry!” The overhead light went out again, returning the room to darkness except for a few weak rays from a streetlight outside the window.

Elizabeth blinked and rubbed her eyes. William’s head still rested in her lap: a glance at his face confirmed that he was still asleep. “We just kind of nodded off,” she whispered. “I guess I should wake him.”

“No, don’t do that. It’s really late. He might as well stay here till morning.”

“I may have to stay here too. I don’t see how I can stand up without waking him.” But she felt stiff from being unable to move. As much as she had enjoyed helping William to doze off, she found herself craving her warm, comfortable bed.

“Hold on a second.”

Jane tiptoed from the room, returning a minute later with a pillow and a blanket. “Put the pillow under his head, and maybe then you can ease out without disturbing him.”

“I’ll give it a try. Thank you.”

“Well, I’m off to bed. I’m exhausted.”

“Don’t I get to hear about your night?”

“Not much to tell, really. Richard is fun to be with and we had a good time. He has an amazing nose for the hot spots in town; he found places I’d never heard of despite living here my whole life.”

Jane disappeared into the bathroom to prepare for bed, and Elizabeth gently lifted William’s head and slipped the pillow beneath it. She rose gingerly to her feet, adjusting the pillow under his head.

William stirred, his eyelids fluttering. “Lizzy?” he mumbled.

“Shhh,” she whispered. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”

Elizabeth covered him with the blanket and then stood motionless, gazing at him. He looked boyish, cuddly, and utterly beguiling. She had to quell an impulse to wake him, take his hand, and lead him into her bedroom for the rest of the night.

Stop it. The judgmental voice had returned for an encore. Remember all those things you told him about communication and trust?

We could just hold each other while we sleep. The idea was irresistible. She reached down to nudge him awake and make this suggestion, but her hand froze just shy of his shoulder. Do you seriously believe that if you end up in bed together, you’ll just sleep?

With a rueful grin, she bent over his sleeping form and kissed his cheek. “Good night,” she whispered. “I love you.” She was surprised how easy it was to say those words, as long as he wouldn’t hear them.