Content advisory: As you have probably surmised, Elizabeth had a traumatic experience some years ago. The specifics will be revealed in this chapter. If it might upset you to read that portion of her story and you would prefer to skip it, you’ll be able to tell when we’re getting to that part; however, my beta team and I have done our best to ensure that her story is told in a sensitive manner. The details presented deal primarily with the context and the emotional fallout rather than with the experience itself.

 

William felt, rather than heard, Elizabeth’s arrival in the kitchen as he filled a china teapot with steaming water from the kettle. She looked small and fragile in his navy silk pajama top and matching robe. The sleeves drooped past her fingertips while the hem of the robe, designed to end at the wearer’s knees, hung to mid-calf.

Licking her lips, she flashed him a quick, tight smile, her eyes darting around the kitchen. He set down the kettle and moved toward her to engulf her in his protective embrace, but she stepped back, folding her arms across her chest.

They seated themselves at the small glass table just outside the kitchen, and he filled two teacups with the fragrant brew. She offered him a wan smile of thanks and sat staring into the cup, her hands wrapped around it as though she sought to warm herself.

William was helpless in the face of her pain, especially because he had, however unwittingly, caused it. He wanted—no, needed—to understand the cause of her distress, and then to do whatever was necessary to return the sparkle to her eyes. If he also craved absolution for himself, he chose not to inspect those less altruistic motives.

They sipped their tea, the occasional clatter of a cup settling into a saucer magnified by the thick, oppressive silence that engulfed them. Even the low hum of the refrigerator seemed unnaturally loud. At last he felt compelled to say something, anything, to try to get her to speak. “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded, giving him an utterly false smile that faded quickly. “Did you talk to Richard?”

“Yes. He was with a woman; I suppose he met her at dinner, or maybe afterwards at a bar. He said he could spend the night there.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Just that he wasn’t allowed to come home. So he’s gone till morning, and we won’t be disturbed.”

Elizabeth nodded again, staring out the windows at the city skyline.

William set down his cup. “Please tell me what’s wrong, cara. And please believe that I didn’t mean to hurt or frighten you. I’d never want to do that.”

At last she emerged a millimeter or two from her shell. “It wasn’t you. Something happened that reminded me of … a bad experience I had once.” Her voice was unsteady and remote, with none of its usual animation.

“A bad experience?”

“Yes.” Again she warmed her hands on the cup, her eyes downcast.

William felt her drifting away from him. He covered one of her hands with his, compelling her to raise her head and meet his gaze. “Tell me about it.”

Her only answer was a shaky sigh that made him long to snatch her from her chair and pull her onto his lap, where he could comfort her. Instead, mindful of her evasive behavior in the kitchen, he forced himself to remain still. “I can see that it’s hard for you to talk about, but how else can I make sure that I don’t do something else that reminds you of whatever happened?”

“You’re right. I owe you an explanation, after making such a mess of things tonight.” She sighed. “Do you want the long version or the short one?”

“I’d probably understand better if you told me the long one.”

“All right, then.” She took a deep breath, a resolute expression coming over her face as she released her tight grip on her teacup. “His name was Michael. I mentioned him once before. Michael Bullard, a name I always expected to see in lights some day, as the saying goes.”

“Where did you meet him?”

“In college, at the start of my freshman year. But to really explain, I have to go back to the summer before that.”

“Weren’t you still at Interlochen then?”

“Right. I had a job waiting tables at a little café, and I took part in the summer music program too. You came up, like you had the year before.” She again studied the contents of her teacup as she continued. “I went to all your performances; I even called in sick at work so I could sneak into a master class you gave on musical interpretation for piano. I got your autograph at least three times during your stay.” She looked up, a pained expression on her face. “And I can’t believe I’m admitting all this stuff.”

He reached out and stroked her hand where it lay on the table. “I bet you were the cutest groupie I ever had.”

Her lips twisted into a mirthless smile. “That’s a bet you’d be smart not to place. I wasn’t much of a success with guys in high school. What little I knew was mostly from watching Char. She always had at least one guy hanging around, and she was usually juggling two or three.”

“I can’t understand that. Granted, she’s striking looking and she has her own style, but you’re so much fun to be around, and you’re absolutely beautiful.”

“I do get called ‘pretty’ sometimes now, but not back then. And ‘beautiful’ is overstating things, don’t you think?”

“Not in the least,” William replied with quiet fervor. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, inside and out.”

Elizabeth smiled at him, her eyes shiny with unshed tears. “You’ve always made me feel that way.”

“As for the rest, Charlotte is intelligent and witty, but so are you. And you’ve got warmth and sweetness that she lacks. I like Charlotte, but you’re the one any man would want to be with.”

“All evidence to the contrary. The thing is, Charlotte was comfortable flirting with guys, so they noticed her. I wasn’t, so they didn’t. Plus, I was a bit of an ugly duckling when I was younger, and I never really learned to make the most of the looks I had.”

“You, an ugly duckling? I don’t believe it.”

“Remind me some time to show you pictures from when I was twelve. I’d gotten over the most awkward period by the time I was sixteen, but I never got in the habit of thinking about my appearance. Until recently, anyway.” Her shy smile went straight to his heart.

“There’s a question I want to ask, but it might embarrass you.”

She shrugged. “I don’t see how it could be worse than the embarrassment I’ve already heaped on my own head tonight.”

“Sixteen-year-old males don’t necessarily respond to inner warmth, but they do get turned on by … well, by …” He struggled with the proper wording. “By a body that’s curvy in all the right places, like yours. I’m surprised that they didn’t want to … or did that, um, develop later?” He gritted his teeth. That was smooth.

Elizabeth exhaled loud jets of air through her nostrils. “You’d be amazed what round-shouldered posture and shirts about three sizes too large can hide.”

“But if you wanted male attention—”

“Not that kind of attention. Maybe if I’d been older when it started …” She gnawed her lip. “I was what my mother called an early bloomer. I hated the stares and the teasing from boys who’d been my friends until then. All of a sudden they were sneaking up behind me and snapping my bra strap, or trying to peek down the neckline of my shirt. It made me self-conscious about my body. Even ashamed, I guess. So I tried to hide it.”

He shook his head. “I hate to be stared at by strangers, but what you’re describing is worse.”

She paused and lifted the teacup to her lips, drinking slowly before she continued. “ I dated a little in high school, but most of the guys I knew were just friends. Pretty often, I’d console Char’s latest dumpee, and we’d end up being buddies. It was actually kind of nice, because they usually thought of me as a little sister. It’s not every girl who has a dozen big brothers looking out for her.”

“I bet every one of them was secretly in love with you.”

“If they were, it was a well-kept secret. And anyway—back to the embarrassing stuff again—none of them could measure up to the impossible standard in my head, which was the oh-so-talented, and oh-so-handsome, William Darcy, way up on his pedestal.”

William felt a flush creeping up his neck to his face, but he didn’t comment.

“After Interlochen came Cincinnati Conservatory. I arrived there without a clue about how to handle myself with college guys. It seemed to me like most of them just wanted to find out what every freshman girl looked like naked.”

He winced. Within a few hours of meeting Elizabeth, he had already been mentally undressing her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I’d rather not say.”

From the arch of her eyebrow, he wondered if she had read his mind, but she didn’t comment, instead continuing her story. “At first I got asked out as much as the other girls, but it never lasted. If a guy got pushy about sex, or tried for anything that might lead there, I wouldn’t go out with him again. Looking back, I can see that I was overreacting. I’m sure if I’d just calmly set some ground rules, at least some of the guys would have backed off.”

“It worked with me.” But William’s smile faded as he reconsidered the issue. “Up to a point.”

She continued as though she hadn’t heard him. “So basically I never gave anybody a chance. I mean, there were a few nice, polite guys who just wanted a good night kiss at the door. But we usually ended up just being friends, like with Charlotte’s cast-offs.”

“No romantic spark.”

“Right. It wasn’t that I wanted to be the only virgin on campus—and of course I wasn’t, though that’s how it felt sometimes. I just wanted to find someone who would care about all of me, my body and my soul. And I’d feel the same way about him.”

“The way it is with us.”

“Exactly.”

She reached out to him, the first time she had sought his touch since her meltdown in the bedroom. He clasped her hand across the table, and their eyes met. I am so lucky to have found her.

She withdrew her hand from his. “I’m taking a long time getting to Michael, aren’t I? When you said you didn’t mind if I told the long version, you had no idea what you were in for.”

“There’s no hurry. Take all the time you need.”

“The day before classes started, a group of us went to get pizza after an orientation session. We left the auditorium, and the first person I saw was a tall guy with dark curly hair who reminded me of you. It was Michael.”

William’s eyes narrowed. “He looks like me? You’re kidding.”

“He was almost your height, but his upper body was more heavily muscled. He worked out a lot, and he was into weight-lifting. He’d been a wrestler in high school.”

William frowned but didn’t comment. So now I have to compete with the memory of Mr. Rippling Pecs, her first love who broke her heart. Great.

She must have read his thoughts, because a hint of a smile touched her face. “I didn’t say that to criticize your physique. I think you’re very nicely built.”

“It’s all right,” he said with a self-deprecating air. “I know I don’t have bulging muscles and a six-pack. Like Michael, apparently.” Damn him.

She shrugged. “Why should you? You’ve got more important things to do than pump iron. Besides, you’re a hundred times sexier than he could ever hope to be.”

William sat back in his chair and gave her a crooked grin. “Thank you for that. I’m sorry I let my insecurities interrupt. Go on.”

She returned the smile, though hers faded fast. “He wasn’t as handsome as you are, but he was still nice to look at, and there was definitely a resemblance. Especially in the eyes, though it was the expression, not the color, that struck me. I was instantly intrigued.”

“Did he pick you out of the gaggle of freshman girls?”

“As if. He looked right past me at a tall, willowy blonde who was part of our group. He invited himself along for pizza, and I barely ate a thing because I couldn’t take my eyes off him. But I didn’t register on his radar screen.”

“And you wanted to.”

Elizabeth sighed. “He was so supremely confident, so sure of himself. He seemed to know everyone, and to be involved in everything. For the rest of that year, when I’d see him around campus he’d wink at me. He probably didn’t even recognize me, but I treasured all those winks. And I soon found out that not only was he the pet student of the drama department, he also had a singing voice to die for. It oozed out of his throat like warm honey, and that was it for me. I was in love. Or at least hopelessly infatuated.”

She paused, shaking her head, and raised her teacup to her lips before continuing.

“Anyway, the faculty considered him Most Likely to Bring Honor and Glory to Our Alma Mater, and they gave him plenty of opportunities to prove himself. He was talented, charismatic, handsome …”

“Mr. Perfect,” William muttered, hating Michael more with every passing minute.

Elizabeth nodded and rolled her eyes. “The sad part is, I was doing exactly what I resented when guys did it to me, basing my judgment on superficial factors. Not that I was the only one who had a crush on him, but I must have been the worst. The following year he finally learned my name when we had some classes together, which meant that when he passed me and winked, sometimes he said, ’Hi, Elizabeth.’ The first time it happened, I was so excited I walked into a wall.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe how stupid and gullible I was.”

“No, you weren’t. You were young and innocent and in love for the first time.”

She shrugged and poured herself another cup of tea. “Wait till you’ve heard the rest before you decide. I’m sure he enjoyed knowing that a lot of girls worshipped him. Looking back, I can see that there was something so smug about him, that inside he was laughing at us. But that’s with benefit of hindsight. I didn’t see it at the time.”

Elizabeth stopped and took several sips of tea, her expression growing tense.

“Are you okay?” William asked softly, watching her intently.

She nodded, turning up her lips into a tight smile. “We’re getting to the difficult part.”

He pulled his chair closer to hers and stroked her arm, encouraged by the fact that she didn’t pull away.

With a deep breath, she continued. “Things went along this way till the spring of my junior year. And then I got my first big role, in ‘Guys and Dolls.’”

“Did you play the female mission worker? What was her name?”

“Sister Sarah Brown. And Michael was cast as Skye Masterson.”

William nodded sagely. “The gambler.”

“You know a lot about the play.”

“My mother was a Frank Sinatra fan, and he was in the movie version. I’ve seen it.”

“Ah. Then you know that Brando played Skye Masterson in the movie, demonstrating that he couldn’t sing. But Michael could. Boy, could he ever.”

“So that must have been exciting, being cast opposite your idol.”

“Plus, it was a big deal to get the part. The rest of the major roles went to seniors. This was the final production of the year, so it was their last chance before hitting the streets of New York or LA looking for work. We even took the production to New York for one performance, for agents and casting directors. Some of the senior girls resented that I was cast, but I always figured it was typecasting. I was as naïve and virginal as you could get. Miss Goody Two Shoes, just like Sister Sarah.”

“And then Michael finally noticed you?”

She nodded. “It was as though he’d flipped a switch. He couldn’t have been more charming or more attentive. The day after the cast announcement, he asked me to go get a cup of coffee. He did it again the next day, and the next. When he asked me out for Saturday night, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

“So by the time rehearsals started, you were already dating.”

“Right. And obviously we saw even more of each other then. Early on, it was often just the two of us and the director, and maybe one or two other actors. And we had to work together on our duets, and on a dance routine for the Havana sequence. Whenever we rehearsed, we’d go somewhere afterwards, even if it was just for a drive.”

“I assume he tried the same sort of physical advances the other guys had?”

“Not at first. He wanted to kiss me, but that was all. I wondered why he was with me, and not one of his tall blondes, but he told me one night that he’d never met a girl like me … that I was special. That was the first time he tried anything beyond kissing, and I was so overwhelmed by his words that I let him do some … exploring with his hands. And as time passed, things slowly escalated from there.”

Her voice was bitter, full of self-recrimination, and his heart ached for her. “It’s okay,” he said quietly. “Just tell me.”

“He turned up the heat after that, using all the lines guys use when they’re trying to get a girl into bed. How painful it was for him if he got excited and then didn’t … well, you know. That if I really cared about him I’d want it as much as he did … or at least I’d want to make him happy.”

Yet again, William recognized himself in the behavior she described. He had never expected her story to show him such an unflattering picture of himself.

“He also started saying that he couldn’t wait any longer, that if I didn’t give him what he wanted, he’d get it from somebody else.”

“A lot of pressure.”

“Yes and no. I mean, I knew they were just lines. Except for the last one. That was entirely too easy to believe, and to imagine in excruciating wide-screen detail. Still, I resisted. I knew I wasn’t ready to handle going ‘all the way’ with anybody, not even him.” She stopped and looked up, her eyes meeting his. “Are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?”

He rose from the table. “Absolutely. But let’s go into the living room.”

“Why?”

“Because I’d like to sit closer to you, and that’ll be easier if we’re on the sofa. Unless you’d rather stay here, of course.” He ached to hold her, but her earlier avoidance of his embrace was still fresh in his mind.

She spoke slowly. “The living room sounds like a good idea.”

William checked the teapot, finding it nearly empty. “Should I make more tea?”

“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

He shrugged. “Of course not. Go make yourself comfortable; I’ll be right there.” As he carried the teapot into the kitchen, he noted with a pang that she hadn’t made one of her usual jokes about his abilities in the kitchen.

 

A few minutes later, William sauntered into the living room carrying a tray bearing the pot and their teacups. Elizabeth wore a hint of a smile as he approached.

“This is so domestic, you serving me tea in your pajamas and robe.”

He grinned as he set the tray on the coffee table. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever been called domestic before, but in this case I think I like it.” He passed her a fresh cup of tea, deposited his own cup on the end table, and then sat back, draping his arm over her shoulders. “Is this okay?”

“Yes, it’s nice. Better than nice, in fact.” She rested her head on his shoulder, though she didn’t melt against him as she usually did.

They sat quietly for a few minutes, and William wondered if he had made a mistake by interrupting her story to relocate to the living room. “I don’t mean to push you, but I hope you’re going to tell me the rest.”

Elizabeth raised her head, attempting a smile, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “You’re being very patient. Thank you.” She reached for her teacup, sipped from it, and then cradled it in her hand. “All right, then. Where was I? Oh, wait, I remember.” She stopped, drank from her teacup again, and returned it to the table before she began to speak in a low voice.

“So, as I was saying, things were escalating between us, but not fast enough for Michael, and in response he did two things that seemed contradictory. He became terribly jealous. He’d get angry if I so much as smiled at another guy. Yet he also started not showing up for dates, and later I’d hear that he’d been seen somewhere or other with one of his blondes draped all over him. Then for a few nights in a row he walked out after rehearsal without even a backward glance, where just a few days before he’d been anxious to get me alone in his car on some secluded road. I thought I was losing him, and I was sure it was because I wouldn’t sleep with him. But I tried to trust my instincts, and not let myself get talked into something that didn’t feel right.”

She stopped and sipped from her teacup again. Setting it down, she settled back against his shoulder. He tightened his arm around her, his lips brushing the top of her head.

“I was infatuated, but there were limits. After the second time he stood me up, I decided to break up with him. But he showed up at my door the next day with a plausible-sounding excuse and a beautiful bouquet of wildflowers, and then I didn’t know what to do.

“Rehearsals ended and the production opened. It was a huge success; we even got some glowing reviews from the Cincinnati city papers. But I couldn’t fully enjoy the accolades because I was so confused about Michael. I think that’s right where he wanted me, confused and insecure.”

“He sounds like a master manipulator.”

“And an excellent actor. I don’t know if there’s a real Michael, or if it’s just a series of roles that he plays. Anyway, the day before the final performance I went shopping and spent way too much on a beautiful dress to wear to the cast party that night. It was even a bit low-cut.” She shrugged. “Not compared to the things most of my friends wore, but by my standards it was daring. And that’s what I was in the mood for, no more Goody Two-Shoes. I decided that I’d go to bed with him after the cast party. My roommate was away for the weekend, so it seemed almost like fate. Plus, I told myself that Michael was right; if I cared about him, I’d want to please him. But the reality was that I was scared of losing him, especially since the play was ending. I guess I hoped that if I gave him what he wanted, I could hold onto him. That was stupid of me, but plenty of other girls have made the same mistake.”

William pursed his lips and shifted.

“I can stop if you don’t want to hear the rest,” Elizabeth said.

“No. It’s fine. I just don’t like the idea of him pressuring you that way.” He didn’t want to admit that it was deeper than that. His conscience was replaying images of all the times when he had pushed Elizabeth for more than she was ready to give.

“The cast party was in the lounge of my dorm. The room was hot and crammed with people. I don’t remember much else about it; I was too nervous about what was going to happen afterwards. Anyway, by the time we left the party, it was late and I had a serious case of the jitters. We got to my room, and almost before I knew what was happening he was all over me. He seemed to have several extra pairs of hands, and he was unzipping my beautiful new dress. I tried to ask him to slow down, but he started kissing me again, and he kept putting my hands on his belt buckle, and trying to get me to unzip his pants.

“I managed to pull away, which wasn’t easy because, as I mentioned at the beginning, he was strong. Suddenly I wasn’t sure about sleeping with him, so I told him to slow down, that we needed to talk. He grabbed my wrists—hard—and said there was nothing to talk about. Either I loved him or I didn’t. If I didn’t, we were finished, but he hoped that wouldn’t happen, because, and I quote, ‘I love you, Elizabeth. And I never said that to a girl before.’

“If I’d been thinking clearly, I might have wondered why a man who loved me would threaten to leave me if I didn’t do what he wanted at the exact moment when he wanted it, and also why he would have been manhandling me. But all I could think was, ‘He loves me!’ So I told him that I loved him, and that he could spend the night.

“After that, he wasn’t so rough anymore, probably because I wasn’t fighting him. But something just seemed wrong. He wasn’t acting like a man in love. There was no tenderness, not even any real passion. I argued with myself; I’d never been to bed with a man before, so how would I know what to expect? But a voice in my head was screaming that I should stop him, tell him I’d changed my mind, even if it meant losing him. I was scared to speak up, but I knew I had to do something. When he paused to … to put on a condom, I finally found my voice and told him that we had to stop, that I couldn’t do this after all. I jumped off the bed and grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around me.”

Elizabeth shivered and nestled closer to William. He stroked her hair, imagining her as she had been that night, lovely and innocent and trembling with fear. It had been obvious all along that Michael had lied about his feelings to get what he wanted from Elizabeth, but in a moment of horror, William realized that it had been much worse.

“I’ve never seen an angrier expression on a man’s face. He grabbed my arms so hard I had bruises afterwards. He called me a tease—actually, he used a nastier term than that. He said he wouldn’t let me make a fool of him, and he’d show me what happened to girls who played those kinds of games. Then he yanked away the blanket and shoved me toward the bed. I lost my balance and hit my head on the top of the bed frame. I was seeing stars, and before I could clear my head and try to stand up, he pinned me down and …” Her voice trailed off into a sob.

She buried her face against William’s neck, and he continued to caress her hair, rage welling up in him toward the monster in human form who had stolen so much from her. After a silence that felt interminable, she raised her head and continued in an unsteady voice.

“I struggled at first, but he was too strong. He just tightened his hold until it hurt. He told me that if I didn’t stop struggling, he’d hurt me a lot worse. So instead I tried to redefine what was happening. I told myself that he was only doing this because I’d pushed him over the edge, that my charming Michael would reappear afterwards and apologize, and he’d tell me again that he loved me. It was an absurd thought; obviously I could never be with him again after this. But in that moment, it was easier to lie to myself than to acknowledge what was happening, and how powerless I was to stop it. It was also better than letting myself feel the pain, both emotional and physical. Of course I’d heard that it sometimes hurts the first time, but …” Elizabeth inhaled a shaky breath and paused for a moment, biting her lip.

“The first time. I’d always imagined that my first time with a man would be beautiful, almost lyrical. My head was stuffed full of romantic nonsense, golden candlelight and rose petals strewn over satin sheets. And instead …”

She closed her eyes and bit her lip again. “To distract myself, I concentrated on the hands of the alarm clock on my bedside table. I’d never seen a second hand move so slowly. One, two, three … I counted the seconds as they passed. It didn’t actually last long according to the clock, but everything was in slow motion, like a nightmare that wouldn’t end, and I was stuck in it and couldn’t wake up.”

She brushed a teardrop from her cheek and hunched forward, slowly draining her teacup. William sat in miserable silence, haunted by the image of his beloved Elizabeth staring at the clock with pain-filled eyes, trying to block out a horrific reality.

“Afterwards, he got up, tossed the condom on the floor, and got dressed. I huddled under the covers trying not to cry. His eyes were like death, cold and contemptuous, and he left without a word.

“I just lay there for a while. I don’t know how long, because I didn’t ever want to look at that clock again. I was so cold; I couldn’t stop shivering. I remember going down the hall to take a shower, and I stayed in there for maybe an hour. I didn’t think I’d ever feel clean, or warm, again.”

“You went to the police first, didn’t you? So they could … collect evidence.”

“I never reported it.”

“You didn’t?” He would never have predicted that she would just let this crime go unpunished.

She glanced at him, and he saw a flash of resentment in her eyes. “You think that’s such an easy thing to do? And besides, I invited him to my room. I agreed to have sex with him. By the time I changed my mind, it was a little late, don’t you think? He was partly right. I got what I deserved for being stupid enough to believe his pathetic declaration of love. I sold myself for nothing.”

“Lizzy, none of this was your fault. None of it. He manipulated you and took advantage of your innocence. And you told him to stop. He had no right to ignore that.”

“But I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it.”

Cara, stop blaming yourself.” William’s heart was beating fast and his voice was tight with emotion. “There’s no excuse for what that sadistic pig did to you; it was selfish and criminal. I asked if you reported him because I hoped he was in jail. A torture chamber would be even more appropriate.”

Tears were swimming in her eyes, but her lips turned up in a tiny smile. “Why is it you can never find a torture chamber when you need one?”

“I can have one built at any time you want; I can afford it. Just say the word.”

Still smiling, Elizabeth wiped away a tear as she settled back against William’s chest. “I thought people would blame me, and agree that Michael was right in saying that I’d teased him. And I guess I did, in a way, but I didn’t mean to. His mixed signals confused me until I didn’t know what to do. But, still, he must have been terribly frustrated by my indecision.”

“Too bad for him. Frustration is no excuse for taking what you want by force. And you should listen to me, because I’m quite an authority on frustration at this point.”

Elizabeth smiled through her tears and pressed a soft kiss to William’s jaw.

“What happened when you saw him around campus after that?” he asked, stroking her cheek.

Elizabeth sighed. “It was awful. He was smug and disdainful. If he spoke to me at all, it was to call me the ‘Ice Maiden.’ But one of my friends delivered the final blow. She was dating a guy who’d had a small role in the play. A few days after … that night, she said she had to tell me something about Michael. You might remember that in the play, the reason Skye Masterson pursues Sister Sarah is because of a bet with Nathan Detroit, who runs the local crap game. It’s essentially a bet that Masterson can compromise her virtue.”

“Yes.”

“Well, Michael made a similar bet with the student who played Nathan Detroit, about me.”

William couldn’t speak as he choked back his rage.

“So Michael’s primary interest in me was in winning the bet; I understand it was for $100. I suppose I became a challenge to his ego too, proof that he could succeed where others had failed, and seduce even the most reluctant virgin.”

“That miserable bastard.” William’s stomach was tied in knots. He clenched his jaw and held her closer. “I wish you’d told me all of this sooner, Lizzy. If I’d had any idea—”

“What could you have done? I know you think you can control the moon and the stars, and the planets too on a good day, but even you can’t re-script the past. Besides, how could I tell you? I felt so stupid and gullible, and so … degraded. I fell for a con man, and not even one with an original shtick.”

“Stop it, Lizzy. It’s his fault, not yours.” Bile rose in William’s throat. “He should burn in hell for what he did to you.”

She continued, showing no sign that she’d heard him. “I never meant to put you through all of this. I thought I’d finally left it in the past and moved on. But then tonight, all of a sudden I was back in college, and Michael was there, and …” She stopped, swallowing hard, and continued in a shaky voice thick with tears. “You didn’t deserve any of this. You’ve been patient and sweet, and I love you so much. I’m so sorry—” She buried her face against William’s chest, her silent tears dampening her cheeks and his bathrobe.

Elizabeth offered no resistance when he coaxed her onto his lap. He rocked her tenderly, holding her close to his heart. Before long, she drew a long, slow breath and raised her tear-stained face from his chest. “I’m sorry to turn into the weeping damsel. This isn’t like me.”

“Hush, cara,” he whispered. “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”

“Do you know that I’ve never told that story from start to finish before?” She dabbed at her eyes and cheeks with a napkin from the tea tray.

He smoothed her hair away from her face. “Not even to Jane or Charlotte?”

“No. They’ve heard most of it, but I could never bring myself to tell them about the bet. It was too humiliating.”

He was touched by this poignant evidence of her trust in him. “Anyone can be duped by a master manipulator, Lizzy. And I mean anyone, including smart people who would ordinarily be more wary. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Her tone was pensive as she continued. “It’s different to tell the story all at once, to see the whole pathetic arc stretching back to the first time I laid eyes on him. Or the first time I laid eyes on you, really. I might not have fallen so hard if he hadn’t resembled you.”

“Have you seen him since college?”

“Only once. Last spring, a month or so before Jane’s wedding. Some friends and I went to a place in the Village, and he was tending bar.”

“What happened?”

“I got someone else to order my drink so I didn’t have to talk to him. But I coudn’t stop staring at him. He noticed once and winked at me, just like he’d always done. That scared me to death, until I noticed him doing it with all the girls.”

“He didn’t recognize you?”

“I don’t think so. And in a way, that made it worse. Here I was, still haunted by what happened, and he didn’t even remember.”

“If he ever crosses your path again, I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”

“Then I have another reason to hope I never see him again,” she replied, raising his hand to her lips and kissing his fingers, “because I’m fond of these hands. They’re much too precious to waste on someone like him.”

She rested her head on his chest and fell silent. He reached over to extinguish the lamp on the end table, throwing the living room into deep, comfortable shadows. Gradually she relaxed against his body. He rested his chin on top of her head, closing his eyes. You’re mine now, and I’m not going to let anyone hurt you ever again.

 

The quiet interval in William’s embrace had done much to restore Elizabeth’s composure, and at last she sat up, depositing a warm but brief kiss on his lips.

“Thank you so much for the way you’ve taken care of me tonight,” she said, stifling a yawn. All the emotion of the evening had left her limp and exhausted. “And I’m sorry I’ve made your life so difficult because of my problems.”

“Don’t say that. Your problems are my problems.”

“Well, it certainly has turned out that way.” She offered him a rueful smile, one he scarcely seemed to notice. “Is something wrong?”

He sighed. “I hate to bring this up, but there’s something I need to ask you.”

“It’s okay. You’ve heard my deepest secret. I have nothing left to hide from you.”

“I’ve been sitting here thinking about what you’ve told me. And the part that’s unclear is, what happened tonight to make you think about him? Was it because he resembles me? It had to be more than just being in bed with a man, because …” William’s voice trailed off and he pressed his lips together.

She took his hand in both of hers, toying with his long, beautifully shaped fingers. “It was a combination of things. The first thing—and don’t blame yourself for this—was when you rolled on top of me. I was sort of pinned beneath you, and it scared me.”

His eyes filled with remorse. “So everything you went through tonight was my fault after all.”

“Of course not. How could you have known? And also, I still might have been okay, but I looked off to the side, trying to take a few deep breaths and calm down, and I saw the clock on your nightstand. It’s an analog clock with a second hand, and it looks a lot like the one I watched that night. And then I was back in my dorm room and …” She shivered.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. Now I’ve upset you again.”

“No, I’m okay. I can deal with remembering. What happened earlier tonight wasn’t just remembering. I was reliving it. When I said I was back in my dorm room, that’s exactly how it felt. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t real, that I was in your bedroom, you were with me, and I was safe. But I couldn’t seem to escape the flashback.”

“Has this happened to you before?”

She nodded. “At first it happened a lot, but these days it’s a rare occurrence, thank goodness.”

“My poor Lizzy. I had no idea you were dealing with such a huge burden.”

She blinked back tears. His sympathy had been the greatest threat to her composure all evening. Determined not to cry again, she wriggled out of his arms and jumped to her feet. “I should change back into my clothes and drive home now.”

William stood and took her hands in his. “You’re not driving yourself home, not after what you’ve been through. That option isn’t even open for discussion. If you insist on going home, I’ll drive you, and I’ll pick you up in the morning. But I wish you’d stay the night instead.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “I don’t think staying is a good idea.”

William’s arms encircled her waist. From the determined look in his eyes, she knew that he intended to win this skirmish. “I need to be sure that you’re going to be okay tonight. And I can only do that if you’re here, under my roof.”

“I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“But I’m going to worry all the same. I know you can take care of yourself, but this once, let me take care of you.”

“You’ve been that all evening, and doing a wonderful job, too.”

“Then I think I’ve earned the right to keep doing it for a while longer.” He unleashed one of the deadliest tools in his arsenal, the lazy grin that rarely failed to weaken her resistance.

There’s nowhere I’d rather be tonight than right here, in his arms. But not if that means… “The thing is, Jane might be waiting up, wondering where I am.”

He shrugged “Then call her. But she probably thinks you’re asleep in my arms, in my bed, which I think is an excellent plan.”

Elizabeth inhaled a sharp breath. She wasn’t ready to resume what they had started earlier, but obviously he was. She opened her mouth to speak, but he continued in a matter-of-fact tone.

“And before you draw any erroneous conclusions, I’m not talking about making love. I’m talking about kissing you good night, holding you while we sleep, and kissing you awake in the morning.”

The thought of spending a night in the warm haven of William’s arms was irresistible. But he had already suffered so much frustration at her hands. “Won’t it be hard—” Elizabeth blushed at her unintentional double entendre. “I mean, won’t it be difficult for you if we sleep together, but we don’t make love?”

“Oh, I have no doubt it’ll be hard,” he drawled, a wicked glint in his eye.

Elizabeth’s blush deepened, but she couldn’t help laughing. William rarely made off-color remarks, and perhaps because of their rarity, his excursions into innuendo never failed to amuse her. Mr. Oh-so-proper Darcy, saying something decidedly improper!

His smile softened and he touched her cheek. “Seriously, cara, my body probably won’t understand the rules, but that’s not important. I’d never try to take advantage of the situation—”

“Of course not. I trust you.” And she did, more than she had realized until now.

He scrutinized her for a moment. “If you’d rather have privacy, you can sleep in my aunt and uncle’s bedroom. We’d just have to hope that the floral overload didn’t make you dream about evil carnations chasing you down the street, trying to inflict a bad case of hay fever.”

She giggled. “That décor really does offend you.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad in the dark. And if you had a nightmare or just needed to be held, I’d be only a few steps away. But I’d probably lie awake all night wondering if you were okay, and trying to talk myself out of sneaking down the hall to check on you. I’d sleep much better if you’d let me watch over you at close range.”

She couldn’t resist his coaxing tone or the warm entreaty in his eyes. “Okay. That sounds nice.”

“I’m glad that’s settled. Now, would you like another cup of tea, or are you ready for bed?”

Elizabeth yawned and rubbed her eyes. “I’m tired, and you look like you are too. I think it’s time for bed.”

He led her down the hallway and into his bedroom. She felt a quick flash of fear on returning to the scene of her earlier meltdown, but she mastered it quickly. Only the clock, glaring at her from its perch on the nightstand, made her uneasy. I just won’t look over there. Or maybe he’ll let me sleep on the other side of the bed.

William was watching her closely. “Are you okay to sleep in the pajama top, or would you like something else? I’d offer you some pajama pants too, but they’d probably just fall off.”

“Or I’d trip over them.” She glanced down at herself. His pajama top covered her to mid-thigh. Below that, her legs would be bare. But let’s face it; earlier tonight he saw you wearing a lot less. “The pajama top is fine, unless you want to wear it yourself and lend me something else.”

“No. I don’t wear pajamas, except when I’m someone’s house guest.”

Elizabeth’s eyes grew huge. “Oh.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” he said with a grin. “I wear my boxers to bed, and usually a tee shirt unless it’s warm. But tonight I’ll wear the pajama bottoms too. Then we’ll be two halves of a matched set.”

She smiled, charmed by his efforts to put her at ease. “And I guess it’s my turn to ask if I can borrow a toothbrush.”

“I’ll check the linen closet. I don’t know what’s in there, but I suppose there might be a toothbrush and soap and things like that.”

“I don’t understand. If you don’t know what’s in the linen closet, what do you do when you need a new bar of soap for the shower?”

William shrugged. “That never happens.”

“Do you mean to tell me that little soap elves run around at night, and if a bar of soap is getting small they put out a new one for you?”

“It’s the housekeeper, not elves, but, yes. Is that really so surprising?”

“No, I guess not.” Sometimes she forgot how profoundly pampered he was.

“I’ll be right back. Help yourself to the bathroom, by the way.”

William disappeared into the hall, and Elizabeth passed through the doorway into his bathroom. She stopped in front of the mirror, inspecting her reflection. The last time she had stood in this spot she had been a mess, with disheveled hair and haunted eyes. Her hair didn’t look much better, but her eyes, though rather red, held a much more hopeful expression. After a quick trip to the living room to fetch her purse and a few minutes spent taming her hair, she thought she looked presentable again.

She splashed water on her face, the cool droplets soothing her skin, and then realized that she didn’t have a towel. So, do I use one of William’s? It was either that or her sleeve, so she removed a hand towel from the towel ring above the sink. As she patted her face dry, she sensed a light trace of William’s scent. She buried her nose in the towel and inhaled him.

A knock at the door interrupted her reverie. “Come in,” she called out. It was William, bearing a plastic-wrapped toothbrush and a stack of towels which he deposited on the counter.

“Thank you,” she said. “May I borrow some toothpaste?”

“Of course.” He opened a drawer beside the sink. “I’m afraid I’m not much of a host. The only reason I remembered towels was because I saw them in the linen closet. And I’m pleased to announce that there are several bars of soap in there too.”

Elizabeth flung her arms around his neck. He nearly stumbled, caught off guard. “Thank you so much,” she whispered in his ear, hugging him fiercely.

He grinned at her, his hands grasping her waist. “You’re welcome, but tell me what I did. If this is how you’re going to thank me, I want to make sure I keep on doing it.”

“You were just … yourself,” she said, kissing him.

William returned the kiss, his lips lingering on hers with a gentle but seductive touch. He made a soft sound in his throat, somewhere between a sigh and a groan, and tightened his arms around her, his tongue teasing her lips apart. His hands slid down her back to draw her hips against his, and she sighed softly, clinging to him.

“My sweet Lizzy,” he murmured. “Ti adoro, cara.”

“I love it when you speak Italian.” Despite her emotional exhaustion, desire shimmered through her at the sound of his deep, husky voice speaking those tender words.

Baciami,” he whispered.

“What does that mean?”

“Kiss me.”

Elizabeth was happy to comply.

 

A few minutes later, William strode barefoot into his bedroom and halted abruptly, momentarily overwhelmed by a sight out of one of his favorite fantasies. Elizabeth, her hair loose around her shoulders, was perched in the middle of the bed, waiting for him. Granted, in his fantasies the pajama top was missing, but he was not of a mind to quibble over details.

His gaze never left her as he moved toward the bed. Her smile seemed restrained, but her eyes were soft with affection.

“Which side do you like to sleep on?” she asked.

“Tonight that’s up to you.” He removed his robe and draped it at the foot of the bed. “Whichever side you choose, plan on sharing it with me.”

Her smile warmed. “In that case, I suppose the middle works as well as anyplace else.”

“Sounds good.” He drew back the covers and joined her on the bed. “Did you call Jane?”

“No. I decided it was too late. I’d just wake her, and she has a big day tomorrow. Besides, if she were worried she’d have called my cell. I checked it; no calls, and no voicemail.”

“You seem like you’re feeling better.”

“I am, much better. A wonderful guy took excellent care of me tonight. Speaking of which, what happened to the clock?”

William had slipped into the bedroom and hidden it in the bottom drawer of the nightstand while she was in the bathroom. “Don’t give it a second thought. It’s gone.”

“Thank you, but that really wasn’t necessary.”

“I want you to feel comfortable in this room.” He cupped her shoulders, feeling their warmth beneath the thin layer of silk.

Conversation ceased as they shared a series of sweet, languorous kisses that left William’s entire body thrumming with desire. Down, boy. Not tonight. She needs to be comforted, not ravished.

“I guess we’d better get some sleep,” she said softly, unwittingly exacerbating his physical dilemma by nuzzling his ear. She lay back, smiling up at him as her head sank into a soft down pillow, so lovely that it almost hurt to look at her.

He lay down on his side, supporting his head on one arm, and tangled his fingers in her hair where it lay on the pillow. “I love you,” he murmured.

“I’m glad we finally got around to saying it.” A smile played around the corners of her mouth.

“I’ve wanted to tell you how I felt for … I don’t know how long, but it seems like forever.”

She drew his head down to hers for a deep, unhurried kiss. His senses were bathed in softness: the dim light from the bedside lamp, the cozy bed, and most of all, Elizabeth nestled close to him.

He switched off the lamp, and in the darkness slid back to her and enfolded her in his arms. “Do you have any plans for the next five or ten years?”

“There might be one or two things on my calendar. Why?”

“I’d recommend that you cancel them, because I don’t think I’m letting you out of this bed for at least a decade. After that, we’ll see.”

He silenced her quiet laughter with his kiss, sinking gladly into the comfort of the night, the bed, and above all, her presence.