“William, we’re here.” Sonya felt an urge to nudge him in the ribs.

“Hmmm?”

“I said we’re here. Top floor, end of the line, our destination?”

“I know.”

Yeah, right. Sonya led the way off the elevator and down the hall to the Top of the Mark lounge. Jane, sitting off to one side of the stage area, waved, and the hostess escorted them to her table. Sonya saw that Richard had been right; the views of the city out the lounge’s large windows were spectacular.

After assisting Sonya in seating herself, William dropped into a chair and signaled a passing cocktail waitress. When it was her turn to place an order, Sonya said, “A cosmo, please,”

Jane smiled at her choice. “Which of the ‘Sex and the City’ women is most like you?”

“None of them. My life is nowhere near that interesting. I just slave away for His Nibs day and night.”

Both women glanced at William, awaiting a pithy retort, but he was staring into the distance and didn’t seem to have heard.

“He’s been a million miles away all day.” Sonya leaned toward Jane, speaking in a confidential tone. “I assume it has something to do with Elizabeth staying over last night.”

Jane glanced at William and then back at Sonya. “How did you find out about that?”

“How do you think? You know Richard can’t keep a secret. I heard all about the cross-town game of Musical Beds. He’s convinced that something momentous happened last night at the penthouse.”

“I’ll thank you to change the subject,” William said in a cold voice. His attention hadn’t been wandering as much as it seemed.

“Sorry, boss. You’d pretty much turned to stone and I almost forgot you were here.”

“And if I weren’t here, it would be okay to gossip about me?”

“Of course not, and I apologize.” Sonya was well schooled in discretion, but Jane’s involvement had lured her into carelessness.

“Speaking of Richard, where is he?” Jane asked.

“He’ll be along soon,” Sonya replied. “He’s at the penthouse, on the phone to Australia. Contract details for William’s trip next month.”

“Where’s Lizzy?” William scanned the lounge. “She said she’d be cutting it close, but she should be here by now.” The rest of the band members were about to begin playing.

“I’m sure she’ll be along any minute,” Jane said. “She called me a few minutes ago and asked me to tell the guys to start without her. They sometimes lead off with a few instrumental numbers anyway.”

“What’s holding her up? Is there a problem?”

“She’s fine.” Jane’s voice was soothing. “An appointment ran late, that’s all.”

Their drinks arrived, and Sonya raised hers to her lips. Hmmm. Something’s going on. I hope there isn’t trouble in paradise.

 

William couldn’t stop worrying about Elizabeth’s whereabouts. She had refused his offer of an early dinner with the vague excuse, “I have an appointment. I’ll tell you about it tonight.” Perhaps there was no reason for concern, but the uncertainty was maddening.

Jane was at the bar talking to a friend, which left William alone with Sonya. After a few failed conversational gambits she had fallen silent, which suited William, who wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter. He also wasn’t in the mood for jazz music, at least not if it meant tolerating Bill Collins’s preening presence at the keyboard. What he wanted was to know that Elizabeth was all right, and until that happened nothing would please him.

His festival of disgruntlement was interrupted by Charlotte’s low, throaty voice. “Hey, William, how’s it going?”

He rose from his chair and nodded to her. “Welcome home. Did you have a productive trip?”

“Yes I did, thanks in part to you.” Charlotte had been in the Netherlands doing dissertation research, her trip funded by an arts foundation with which William had connected her.

“I simply made a few calls. You did the rest.” He assisted her in seating herself and made terse introductions.

“He’s such a gentleman, isn’t he?” Charlotte said, grinning at Sonya.

Sonya turned a sardonic eye on him. “Yeah, he’s a regular Sir William Raleigh.”

“Oh, William, you’re in trouble now.” Charlotte rubbed her hands together, her eyes gleaming. “Sonya can fill me in on what you’re really like.”

“Not if she values her job.” He crossed his arms over his chest, glowering.

“Oh, stop being such a grouch,” Sonya said, rolling her eyes. “You know perfectly well that I always say nice things about you to other people. I only insult you to your face.”

“Welcome to my world,” William sighed.

Charlotte snickered at his remark as she glanced around the room. “Ah, there’s Jane. Who’s she talking to?”

William didn’t know, nor did he care. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Elizabeth dashing into the lounge, and relief washed over him. She signaled a wordless apology to her fellow band members and then turned in William’s direction. He rose to his feet and stepped away from the table, basking in the pleasure of watching her approach.

“Hi,” she breathed, stepping close to him and raising her face to his. His arms encircled her and their lips touched gently, ever mindful of the public setting.

“I was worried about you,” he murmured.

“I’m fine.” She brushed his lips with her thumb. “Lipstick.”

“You shouldn’t have rubbed it off. Now I’m going to have to get some more.”

“Well, then, come and get it.”

This time the kiss lingered. When they drew apart, it was with obvious reluctance on both sides.

Elizabeth glanced over his shoulder at the occupants of their table. “We have an audience.”

“Tonight I don’t care. I’m just glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” She touched his cheek. “But as much as I’d rather stand here and kiss you for the rest of the evening, the guys are probably going to expect me to do a little bit of singing.”

“I know. But first tell me where you were.”

“I went to talk to a counselor about what happened last night. I promise I’ll tell you more about it later, when we have time.”

The answer took him entirely by surprise. He was about to question her further when a jovial voice rang out. “Okay, you two, break it up.”

William didn’t need to look away from Elizabeth to know who had just spoken. “Go away, Richard.”

“Fine thanks I get.” Richard winked at Elizabeth. “I’ve been hard at work on his behalf, and all he can say is, ‘Go away.’”

“Well, I’m glad you were able to escape the salt mines and join us,” Elizabeth said. “How are you?”

“Thirsty.”

She turned at William. “You need to buy Richard a drink. A smooth, well-aged single malt scotch in a crystal tumbler, no ice.”

“Will, have I mentioned how much I love this girl?”

“Don’t get any ideas.” William stared pointedly at Richard’s arm, which rested loosely around Elizabeth’s shoulders. It didn’t bother him—not much, anyway—but he knew that Richard expected him to respond.

“I’m still waiting for her to wise up and figure out who the hot cousin really is.”

“Trust me,” Elizabeth replied, “that e-mail arrived a long time ago.” She beamed at William, who shot a smug glance at Richard.

“I definitely need a drink,” Richard grumbled, heading in the direction of the bar.

William led Elizabeth to the table. After greeting the others, she plopped into a chair beside Charlotte, speaking rapidly. “I want to hear all about the Netherlands, including the things you left out of your e-mails, but I have to go sing before the guys fire me. We’ll talk later?”

“I’ll be here.”

“Good. I’d better get to work.” Elizabeth jumped to her feet, kissed William on the cheek, and hurried away to the stage area.

“Have you seen Charles lately?” Charlotte asked Jane, who had returned to the table.

“It’s been a couple of weeks, but he’s coming up this weekend for Lizzy’s party.”

Richard approached them, a glass in his hand. “Well, cuz, I’m here now, so you can forget about having these three lovely ladies all to yourself. And that’s not counting the ravishing creature who just left lipstick on your cheek. Now I see why you were in such a hurry to desert me at the penthouse.”

William accepted Sonya’s proffered Kleenex and wiped his cheek clean. “Hardly. I simply didn’t want our plans to interfere with the first honest work you’ve done since you came to San Francisco.”

“You know perfectly well that I’m not a fan of work, honest or otherwise.” Richard seated himself between Jane and Charlotte. “Isn’t anybody going to introduce us?”

“Of course,” Jane said. “Charlotte, this is William’s cousin, Richard Fitzwilliam. Richard, this is a good friend of Lizzy’s and mine, Charlotte Lucas.”

“So you’re the cousin I’ve been hearing about,” Charlotte said, eyeing Richard with obvious interest.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard,” Richard drawled, “but it’s probably true.”

“What sort of ‘honest work’ do you do?”

“He’s my business manager, and a perennial thorn in my side,” William said.

Charlotte smirked. “Such a broad range of talents.”

“Oh, that list barely scratches the surface,” Richard replied smoothly.

“The problem is,” Sonya shot back, “your other ‘talents’ aren’t fit for public discussion.”

“Now I’m intrigued.” Charlotte leaned toward Richard. “Tell me more.”

Richard leaned forward as well, his eyes glittering. “I would, but I’m really more into showing than telling.”

“That suits me. When does the show start?”

“Any time you like. Why don’t we discuss performance opportunities over a drink? I’d offer to buy, but this round is on Will. In fact, all the rounds are on Will; he’s a handy guy to have around. What would you like?” Richard flagged down the cocktail waitress.

“Johnny Walker Black, neat.”

Richard’s lips quirk in a crooked grin as he glanced up at the waitress. “Make that two.” He turned his grin on Charlotte. “A scotch drinker, and you don’t ruin it with ice, either.”

“I admit, I drink it on the rocks now and then, but tonight I’m going for the gusto. So you’re a Johnny Walker Black drinker too?”

“Not usually. I prefer 30-year Macallan, but they don’t serve it here.”

“I’ve never had it.”

“It’s the nectar of the gods.”

Charlotte and Richard’s banter continued, as did Sonya and Jane’s more placid conversation, but their voices faded as William focused on Elizabeth, who was preparing to sing. He sat back, his possessive gaze fixed on her, and did his best to forget his worries, losing himself in her song.

 

“Have you had that talk with Roger yet?”

“Yeah. He stopped by last night and we had a good conversation, really cleared the air.”

The band was taking a break, and Elizabeth and Charlotte stood together near the bar catching up on recent events.

Elizabeth glanced at William, who stood alone by a window inspecting the dramatic view of the city. He seemed pensive and a bit melancholy tonight, but so far he had evaded Elizabeth’s attempts to delve into the cause.

She returned her attention to Charlotte. “So then, are you and Roger officially broken up?”

“Not exactly. For one thing, we were never officially together. At least, not ‘together’ together. But we’re going back to something more casual, like at the beginning.”

“I’m not used to seeing you date a guy for this long, especially not exclusively.”

Charlotte shook her head. “It was mostly just absent-mindedness. This summer I was so absorbed in my dissertation that I didn’t have the energy to do much looking around. Roger’s a great guy, and he was convenient, sort of a routine I fell into. He said he finally realized that it’s been the same for him. The difference is that he likes routine and I don’t.”

“And he’s okay with this … I don’t know what to call it. Cooling off?”

“He says he is. He doesn’t love me, thank God; that would have been a mess. But we’re friends and the sex is good, so there’s no reason to completely call it quits. Anyway, enough about me. I want to know what’s going on with you and William.”

“Things are good.” Elizabeth didn’t want to go into detail at the moment. It was simply too long a story, and she hadn’t decided yet which details she was willing to share.

“Just ‘good’? Rumor has it you and William spent last night together.”

“‘Rumor’ being a code name for Richard?”

Charlotte chuckled. “He’s a piece of work, that one.”

“In a good or bad way?”

“Some of both. Doesn’t matter, though. You know I can’t possibly resist him.”

Elizabeth accepted her refilled water glass from the bartender, giving him a nod of thanks, and then turned back to Charlotte. “I figured as much. You’re like twins separated at birth.”

“Twins?” Charlotte grimaced. “I hope not, considering what I’m going to do to—and with—him later tonight.”

“And you two have already decided this? That was done at warp speed.”

“We haven’t discussed it, but we both know it. By the way, when is he going back to New York?”

“Saturday, with William.”

“A pity. Only three nights left; too bad my days are booked. Oh, and speaking of days, you don’t teach on Friday, right?”

“Not this week. Why?”

“For your birthday gift, I’m taking you to a spa for a day of pampering, and I thought Friday would be perfect. We can get you all fixed up for your big evening with William … though I guess last night might have been a big evening too.” Charlotte eyebrows were raised in anticipation.

That’s for sure. Elizabeth reflected back Charlotte’s smirk.

Charlotte heaved a sigh. “You never tell me any of the good stuff. Anyway, is Friday okay?”

“It sounds heavenly.”

“Good. Jane’s going to try to join us for the afternoon. We talked about it before she went home. Too bad this trial has her so distracted.”

“I can’t wait. Thanks, Char.”

“Yeah, well, what do you get for the girl who has everything? I’ll call you tomorrow to firm up the arrangements.”

Elizabeth saw the other band members returning to the stage. “Looks like break’s over. I won’t keep you from your twin any longer.”

As Elizabeth walked away, Charlotte called after her, “I’ll tell you what. You stop calling him that, and I’ll stop asking you what happened last night.”

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, smiling. “It’s a deal.”

 

Later that evening, William sat sipping an excellent cognac and watching Elizabeth sing. His tablemates had given up on engaging him in conversation, relieving him of any need to pretend to listen to them.

Each time he and Elizabeth made eye contact, a little dart of energy zapped between them. Ordinarily that would have been sufficient to keep him in a happy haze, but he couldn’t shake off a sense of unease. Snippets of her story from last night and her explanations this morning had been circling in his mind since his lunchtime walk, the pieces not quite adding up … at least, not to any answer he wanted to accept.

An even bigger problem was the rage that inhabited the pit of his stomach. How dare anyone treat my Lizzy that way? He had no idea how to help her, but he had promised himself that he would never again pressure her for physical intimacy. He had made and broken that promise several times before, forgetting in the heat of passion his resolve to follow her lead. Never again. It’s bad enough that I remind her of that bastard; I refuse to behave like him.

Her song ended and the band took another break. Elizabeth’s progress in William’s direction was halted by the compliments of some patrons at a table close to the stage.

“Excuse me, Mr. Darcy?” It was the cocktail waitress, holding a tulip-shaped glass identical to the one in front of him, except that it was full.

“I didn’t order a refill,” he said with a dismissive gesture.

“The ladies over there sent it with their compliments. They told me that you’re a famous musician?”

“I’m a concert pianist.” William’s head swiveled in the direction the waitress had indicated, on the other side of the dance floor. Six women of varying ages were watching him intently.

The waitress set the glass in front of him, its amber liquid sloshing gently from side to side. “They’re fans of yours and didn’t want to disturb your evening, but they wanted to buy you a drink.”

“You should go talk to them, Will,” Richard said with a smirk. “It’ll be the thrill of their lives, to experience the William Darcy Magnetic Field up close and personal.”

William gritted his teeth. He had no intention of trying to make small talk with a table full of fans at a bar, and Richard knew it. Still, some sort of gesture was in order, so he nodded in the direction of the women, raising the glass in a silent toast. As he turned away, he heard a burst of high-pitched noise from their direction. A quick look back showed the women leaning toward the center of the table, all talking at once.

“All the attention William gets from adoring women must make you jealous,” Charlotte said to Richard, her eyes gleaming with mirth.

Sonya snorted. “Only on days with a ‘Y’ in their names.”

“Ignore her,” Richard said. “That blasted magnetic field of Will’s does tend to draw in the ladies, but I have some skills of my own.”

“Mr. Fitzwilliam,” Charlotte said with exaggerated formality, “I do get the sense that you don’t spend many nights alone.”

“All hail the defender of my honor.” Richard clinked glasses with Charlotte. “As to nights alone, I confess I’m a male version of Goldilocks. I enjoy trying out different beds, looking for one that’s just right.”

“Not afraid of being eaten by the big bad wolf?” Charlotte’s eyebrows rose in a suggestive arch.

“The wolf was in The Three Little Pigs. And Little Red Riding Hood too, come to think of it. Goldilocks had a run-in with the three bears. But why do you ask? Is there a possibility that I might get eaten … up?”

Charlotte didn’t say anything, but the crooked angle of her grin combined with the frank expression in her eyes made it clear that an offer had been extended … and accepted, judging from Richard’s answering smirk. William shook his head, staring into his glass of cognac. Lizzy was certainly right about them.

Two hands landed on William’s shoulders, and he smelled a familiar jasmine perfume. Elizabeth bent over and kissed his cheek. “How’s it going here?”

“Much better.” He rose to pull out a chair for her, but she put a hand on his arm and drew him a few steps away from the table.

“Look, I’m done for the evening. The guys are going to finish with an instrumental set, so I was thinking … ”

“We can get out of here?” It sounded like an excellent plan.

“Not yet. I should stay till they’re finished in case they change their minds. But what if we find a quiet table over by the windows, just the two of us?”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“Excellent.” She addressed the others at the table. “Would you mind if I stole William for a while? There’s something I need to discuss with him.”

“By all means, take him away.” Richard grinned at her. “He’s done nothing but stare at you all night anyway. And I suppose he might have grunted once or twice. By the way, you’re quite a singer. Will didn’t exaggerate when he told me how good you were.”

“Thank you, Richard.”

Sonya rose to her feet. “As much as it frightens me to say the words, I agree with Richard. You’re every bit as good as William told us, and that’s saying something. I’m glad I got to hear you. But now it’s time for me to be on my way. I have an early flight in the morning.”

“It’s been great having you in town,” Elizabeth said. “I’m glad we had brunch together that day. I’d hoped we could do it again, but then my schedule got crazy.”

“I’ll see you at Thanksgiving. Maybe we can find some time to have lunch and check out that vintage clothing store in the Village that you told me about.”

“That sounds like fun. Have a good trip, Sonya, and I’ll see you next month.”

Sonya turned to Richard. “And as for you, behave yourself.”

“The only behaving I’m planning to do is misbehaving.”

William shook his head. Some things never change.

 

Elizabeth watched William walk away with Sonya at his side. He was escorting her to her hotel despite her protests that she didn’t need a bodyguard when the Fairmont was just across the street. Elizabeth smiled to herself. She might as well save her breath.

Charlotte eyed Elizabeth with obvious curiosity. “What’s this about Thanksgiving?”

“Elizabeth is going to spend Thanksgiving at the fortress in New York.” Richard sat back in his chair, gently swirling the scotch in his glass. “You’re a brave girl, tackling Gran on her home turf.”

“Is your grandmother really that bad, or are you just trying to scare Liz?”

Richard shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I think Gran is terrific, but she’s a tough old broad. And William is the only son of her only son, the heir to the kingdom, you might say.”

“You’re the eldest grandchild. Does she have something against heirs produced by daughters?” Elizabeth was trying to keep an open mind, but the picture emerging of William’s grandmother didn’t impress her.

“There’s more to it than that. Put yourself in her position. On your left, ladies and gentlemen, there’s the brilliant musician and dutiful grandson who’s steady and respectful and behaves himself in public. And on your right, we have the frivolous playboy whose peccadilloes come home to roost from time to time. Now, place your bets on the Great Hope for the Future.”

“You’re pretty hard on yourself,” Charlotte said.

“Don’t worry; it never lasts. Ordinarily I’m my biggest fan. But obviously Gran picked the right man for the job. Besides, I enjoy being the ne’er-do-well. Will gets roped into representing the family on boards of directors and at unspeakably dull parties.”

“And let me finish this story for you,” Elizabeth said. “Your grandmother thinks I’m an unsuitable girlfriend for the crown prince of the Darcy clan.”

Richard hesitated. “‘Unknown element’ might be a better way to put it. Most of William’s girlfriends have been the granddaughters or nieces of people she knows. So she’s at least on yellow alert. But you’ve got some fans in that house; Mrs. R. is crazy about you, and you seem to have won Sonya’s seal of approval. I’ll even put in a good word for you, for what little that’s worth.”

“Thanks, Richard. I appreciate the endorsement and the warning.”

“Just looking out for Will. I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s become a reflex.” He shrugged. “I need a drink. Anybody else?”

William returned to their table and stood behind Elizabeth, his hands massaging her shoulders. She twisted around to smile at him. “Did you deliver Sonya safely to her hotel?”

“Yes, and she never stopped trying to get rid of me.”

“Maybe she had a secret rendezvous planned, and you were in the way.” Elizabeth rose to her feet, laughing at the baffled look on his face. “I was kidding, silly boy. Come on, let’s find a table.”

They situated themselves in a corner of the room, as far from other people as possible. “Would you like a drink?” he asked.

“Looks like I could just share with you. When did you become a two-fisted drinker?” She nodded at the two glasses of cognac he had brought with him.

“The women over there are fans; they sent me a refill. And before you ask, no, I didn’t go and talk to them afterwards, and I don’t intend to, so don’t waste your time trying to talk me into it.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” she said, tamping down a flash of annoyance at the harsh tone in his voice. It wasn’t like William to take out his frustrations on her, offering further evidence that something was bothering him, something that it might help him to discuss. He usually resisted direct questions, but it often helped to get him talking about a non-threatening topic first. She adopted a light-hearted tone. “Besides, you already did your daily good deed when you were so nice to Jenna.”

“Jenna?”

“My voice student. The one who got your autograph.”

“Oh, of course.”

“She has a huge crush on you, and you can’t imagine how much it meant to her.”

William took Elizabeth’s hand. “I looked at her, and it was as though I was seeing you waiting for my autograph when you were sixteen. I wish I’d noticed you then, and talked to you.”

“Well, you gave her a thrill, and I was proud of my wonderful guy.” She grimaced. “Oh, no. Now I have a song from ‘South Pacific’ in my head—you know, ‘I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy.’ I suppose it’s no wonder, considering all the time I’ve spent listening to it at rehearsals.”

His smug grin might have annoyed her had it not been so sexy. “But you are, aren’t you, cara?”

She exhaled loudly in feigned irritation, but she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “If you do say so yourself. But, yes, I am.”

“That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”

His smile was wider now, and she congratulated herself on the success of her strategy.

They fell silent and Elizabeth appropriated one of his glasses, inhaling slowly before she tasted its contents. William loved to linger over a glass of cognac after a relaxed dinner, and although she found the flavor too strong for more than a few sips, she was at least learning to appreciate the rich aroma. “Did you really tell Richard and Sonya that I was a good singer?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. I just never envisioned you doing that.”

“I’m proud of you, Lizzy, so of course I’d tell them how talented you are. And you know how much I love hearing you sing.”

She squeezed his hand. “Even if you have to skulk in doorways to hear me.”

His expression softened into a gentle smile. “Your song this morning was beautiful.”

“I learned it a while ago, but today it was brand new for me. I understood exactly what every word meant, because of you.”

He clasped both of her hands in his. Their eyes met, and she could feel William’s intense gaze penetrating her soul. Once this had made her uneasy, but now she welcomed it. When he spoke, his voice held a husky note. “How long before the end of the song did you see me?”

“As a matter of fact, I saw you right before I started singing.”

“You knew I was there the whole time?”

“I’d been watching for you. I thought you’d probably stop by if your meeting ended soon enough.”

“Wait a minute. You know that I watch you practice sometimes?”

Her eyes sparkled as she squeezed his hand. “Why do you think the classroom door is always open when you get there?”

“But how did you know?”

“I saw you up there one day, maybe six weeks ago, lurking by the door. I almost invited you in, but you didn’t seem to want to be noticed. I decided that if you wanted me to know you were there you’d say something.”

“And I thought I was so successful with my stealth routine,” he said with a forlorn air.

“I decided to just play along. I know you’re disappointed that I haven’t sung for you when we’re alone, especially since you’re always willing to play for me.”

“Of course I am. It rarely fails to earn me some very … hot … kisses.” He leaned over and brushed his lips over hers after each of the last three words.

“Definitely a win/win scenario,” she said softly. His mood was lighter now, so she decided to try a gentle probe. “Earlier you seemed like something was bothering you. Is there something you’d like to talk about?”

He didn’t answer at first, his gaze drifting around the room. “I’d rather wait till we’re alone. I wish we could leave now.”

“I’m sorry.” She checked her watch. “A little less than an hour to go. But if you don’t want to stay—”

“If you’re here, I’m here. But since we’re talking about later, I was hoping that you’d stay the night with me again. Just so I can hold you while we sleep; I’m not expecting anything else.”

“I have an overnight bag in the car, because I thought you might ask.”

“Excellent foresight.”

“Well, after all, I did agree to your thirty-year plan this morning. The only thing is, I have a voice lesson at seven, a make-up, so I’m going to have to get up awfully early.”

“That’s fine, though I’ll probably try to convince you to play hooky and stay in bed.”

“I know I’ll be tempted.” She withdrew one hand from his grasp, running a finger along his cheek. “Maybe I’d better not look at the gentleman occupying the pillow next to mine, or I won’t want to go anywhere.”

His grin, with dimples on high beam, nearly stole her breath. “I’ll have to do my best to look irresistible, then, so you can’t bear to leave me.”

You really won’t need to work at that.

William released her hands and sat back, sipping his cognac. Elizabeth decided that she wanted a glass of wine. As she glanced around the room, deciding whether she should wait for the cocktail waitress or go to the bar herself, she noticed that their former table was empty. “It looks like Char and Richard are gone. Did you see them leave?”

“That’s odd. I would have expected them to stop by to say goodnight.”

“Later they’ll claim that they didn’t want to disturb us, but I bet they were just waiting for you and Sonya to disappear so they could sneak off together.”

“I wonder what Roger thought. He probably saw them go.”

“According to Char, he should be fine, in theory, at least. They’ve supposedly come to an understanding that they’re going to be casual friends.”

She glanced at Roger, seated behind his drum set. He motioned with his head and mouthed something that she couldn’t understand. She excused herself and crossed the room, standing a short distance away until the band finished its current selection.

Roger frowned at her. “Sweetie, what are you still doing here? Jim and I rearranged the songs so you wouldn’t have to hang around here all night.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m part of the group and I’m staying till the end.”

“That’s an excellent attitude, Elizabeth,” Bill Collins chimed in. “I applaud your commitment, though I’d expect nothing less from you.”

“Cram it, Collins,” Roger snapped, surprising Elizabeth. Roger was usually tolerant of Bill’s foibles. “There’s no reason why she and Will can’t leave.”

“I agree with Roger, but can we wrap up this conference?” Jim Pennington asked, adjusting his grip on his bass. “We’re getting paid to play, not chat.”

“Sorry, Mr. Pennington,” Elizabeth sang out. Jim was the unofficial disciplinarian of the group, a natural role given his job as a high school principal. Warren Black, the final member of the group, grinned at Elizabeth but didn’t comment.

“Seriously, Lizzy,” Roger said. “Go enjoy the rest of your evening.”

”Okay, thanks. And William thanks you too.”

 

The moment the elevator began its descent, William pulled Elizabeth into his arms. “Alone at last,” he whispered against her lips. He had been waiting for this moment since hearing her sing at the conservatory that morning.

Their kiss lasted for nineteen floors, ending only with their arrival in the hotel lobby. William grabbed her hand and pulled her through the elegant surroundings at a brisk pace, his powerful strides fueled by his impatience.

When they reached the main doors, Elizabeth grabbed his arm. “Hold on. I’ve got shorter legs, and you’re not wearing spike heels.”

William stopped. “Sorry. I’m just in a hurry to be alone with you. How about if I carry you?” He meant it as a joke, but on reflection it didn’t seemed like a bad idea.

“I think I’m safer walking. Just don’t sprint, that’s all.”

They exited the hotel together into the chilly night air. “You don’t think I could carry you? Want to see me do it?”

She tucked her arm through his. “Come on, Superman, the light’s changing.”

Together they crossed the street, walking the short distance to the parking garage to fetch her overnight bag and then retracing their steps to his building. As soon as they were in the elevator, he set the bag on the floor and lifted her off the ground, cradling her in his arms.

“Is this supposed to impress me?” she asked. She pressed her lips together, obviously trying not to smile, but her eyes bubbled with laughter.

“Just proving a point.” William kissed her soundly, and with a sigh of surrender her arms stole around his neck. When the elevator doors opened, he set her on her feet. “So, are you impressed?” he asked.

“I really don’t need to be carried around, but as for your kissing … that has always impressed me.”

“Then allow me to impress you some more.” He buried his hands in her hair and his lips recaptured hers, more demanding this time. She leaned against him with a soft moan, and heat rippled through him as he pulled her closer.

The elevator doors slid shut, and Elizabeth drew away from him, laughing. “Unless we want to ride the elevator all night, maybe we’d better think about getting off.” She reached for the elevator controls in order to open the door.

They stepped off the elevator, her overnight bag in his hand despite her assurances that she could carry it. His unease hadn’t completely vanished, but he couldn’t think of a better antidote than a quiet conversation, followed by a repeat of last night’s sleeping arrangements.

 

Ten minutes later William and Elizabeth again waited for the elevator doors to open, this time from the outside. Their shared discomfort was revealed by fidgeting: Elizabeth with the loose ends of the belt on her raincoat, and William with a button on his sleeve.

William took her hand. “Lizzy, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

The elevator arrived and they stepped aboard.

“But he’s my cousin.”

Elizabeth shrugged. “And she’s my friend. And really, they had as much right to be here as we did. In fact, we should have expected it.”

“Sex is usually an ‘away game’ for Richard; in fact, those are his words. I would have expected them to go to her place.”

“But the penthouse was convenient, and obviously they were in a hurry.”

William snorted. “Obviously.”

They had entered the penthouse to find a trail of clothing leading from the front hallway to the master suite, whose door was closed. Apparently Richard considered the smaller bed in his room inadequate for the occasion and was willing to overlook his mother’s aggressively floral décor.

Not that he’s spending much time inspecting the wallpaper. The loud groans and cries filtering through the door had obliterated any remaining doubt about either the activity in progress or the identities of the participants.

“I don’t mean to be a prude,” Elizabeth said, “but there are just some things I’d rather not know about my friends.”

“And relatives.”

In addition to the stifling impact of the embarrassment they shared at their discovery, there had been no point in trying to hold a quiet conversation so close to the epicenter of an earthquake. They had hastily decamped and now found themselves back in the lobby, exiting to the street.

“Could we go to your place instead?” William asked.

She wrinkled her nose, her expression apologetic. “Jane’s probably still up preparing for court. This custody case really has her tied up in knots. I’m afraid we’d disturb her, and we already kind of imposed on her last night when she ended up babysitting Richard.”

They stopped just outside the building. “We wouldn’t disturb her if we went to your bedroom and stayed there.”

“The thing is …” Elizabeth paused and sighed. “After what just happened upstairs, I’d probably keep thinking about Jane in the living room while we’re in the bedroom. Not that we’d be making all that noise, or for that matter doing anything resembling what they were doing, but suppose one of us shifts position and the bed squeaks and she assumes that …I’m not explaining this very well.”

“You want us to have privacy. You’re explaining it perfectly.”

“It made such a difference last night to know that we were alone, like we were in our own little cocoon. And Jane and I have never developed ground rules for overnight visitors, mainly because in the time I’ve lived here neither of us has brought a man home for the night.”

“Except the time I slept on the sofa.”

“I meant to share a bed. It’s just been you on the sofa, and of course Richard in my room last night.”

“He’s been having fun boasting about sleeping in my girlfriend’s bed.”

“I’m sure he finds it hilarious that he’s slept there and you haven’t.”

“He doesn’t know that, or at least I haven’t told him. It’s none of his business, or anyone’s business but ours.”

“He’s asked Jane a few questions about us, but she just gives him generic answers.” She shivered and drew her coat tightly around her.

He drew her closer. “You’re cold. We need to decide where we’re going.”

“I could just go home, and we could try to get together tomorrow.”

“No.” William was becoming resigned to the likelihood that he would be sleeping alone tonight, but he wasn’t letting her leave yet.

“Oh, come to think of it, tomorrow’s a mess. And I promised to tell you about my appointment. Why don’t we take my bag back to my car and then hang out at Top of the Mark till closing time? I bet the place is almost empty by now, and the guys won’t bother us.”

“Not even Collins?”

“He’s an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ type. He usually bolts out the door the minute we’re done with a gig. I don’t think he’ll hang around once they’ve finished the last set.”

William could think of only one alternative—stopping at the hotel desk and requesting a room—but there were connotations to taking a woman to a hotel room that he feared might send the wrong message to Elizabeth. “All right. Top of the Mark it is.”

 

To William’s relief, Elizabeth’s predictions turned out to be accurate. The lounge was only sparsely occupied when they returned, and they had no trouble finding a comfortable sofa in a shadowy corner far from the other patrons. The mellow jazz music provided a soothing backdrop for a quiet conversation. Although William had hoped for a different end to his evening, things could have been worse.

“Now,” he said, settling back against the cushions, a cup of decaf coffee in his hand, “tell me about your appointment today.”

“Okay. This morning while we were in bed I was thinking about things, especially the flashback. I’ve been trying some self-help techniques I read about on the Internet, and I thought I was doing better, but it’s obvious that I have a long way to go. And the thing is, I’m not just hurting myself; it’s affecting you too.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” He said the words for her sake, but they weren’t entirely true.

“You can’t tell me that my problems haven’t caused you a lot of pain and frustration. You deserve better than that. We both do.”

She paused, reaching for her coffee. William stared into his own cup in silence. She was right. He did deserve better, and although he was ashamed of himself, it wasn’t the first time he’d thought about it. It was one of the many grudges he harbored against Michael.

Elizabeth continued. “So between classes I called a r—a women’s crisis center to see if they had someone I could talk to. And I saw one of their counselors early this evening, after my last voice lesson; she stayed late to see me, in fact.”

“Is this the first time you’ve gotten counseling?”

She nodded. “Jane’s always tried to get me to go, but I thought I could get over it on my own. I’ve always been big on self-reliance—well, I guess you know that. Besides, I wanted to put it behind me, not to be forced to revisit it on a regular basis.”

“But if you were having flashbacks and other problems—”

“I know. I wasn’t revisiting it in therapy; instead I was reliving it at other times. But I just couldn’t bear to think about how completely he humiliated me, or to admit how pathetically stupid and gullible I’d been. It was easier to pretend that none of it mattered. And although my decisions haven’t necessarily been the smartest ones, my approach wasn’t a total failure. I haven’t been cowering alone in the dark all this time. I’ve worked hard and had fun and made lots of friends.”

“Of course you have. One of the first things I noticed about you was how vibrant you were, how full of life. That’s probably what I saw in your eyes right from the start.”

“And I haven’t been in the grip of continual flashbacks either. I wouldn’t want you to think that. I mean, it was pretty bad at first. The least little thing would set me off. I had to get a single room my senior year of college because I was afraid my nightmares would wake up a roommate. But gradually things got better. I had problems from time to time, but otherwise I felt like I was in control. It’s just been recently that I’ve taken a step backwards.”

“Because of me, and the different ways I remind you of him.” Her timeline confirmed William’s worst fears. “And that means that every time you look at me, you’re going to think of him and of what he did.”

“But a lot of that was me misjudging you.”

“No. It’s more than that. How can I touch you without worrying that I’ll frighten you? How can I ever make love to you when you might look up at me and think I’m him, and panic?”

“That won’t happen. I won’t let it happen, not ever again. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not blaming you. I know you couldn’t help it. But I’ve been thinking about this all day, and …” He exhaled a loud sigh and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Is this what you’ve been brooding about tonight?”

He nodded. “I see you in my mind, lying there shaking. I couldn’t even touch you without making it worse.”

“I know, and that’s why I went to see someone today. I won’t let this stand between us anymore.”

“But this must not have happened with the others, except maybe the first one. And yet it’s happening with me.”

“What others? I don’t understand.”

“The men you’ve been with since then. I could understand you having a bad reaction your first time after Michael, but as you said, things have gotten better over time … until now. And it’s because of me.”

“No, it’s not. When I talked about things getting better, I meant in general. As far as other men are concerned … there haven’t been any other men. Not in that way.”

He sat up straight and stared at her. “What?”

“If we’d gone through with … things last night, it would have been my first time since Michael.”

“But hasn’t it been six or seven years?”

She nodded. “You were the first man in all that time who made me want to take the risk.”

“But …” William could only shake his head slowly.

“Why is that so impossible to believe?”

“It’s just … with all the men who must have noticed you and wanted to be with you, you weren’t interested in even one of them?”

“It depends on what you mean by ‘interested.’ I’ve been on some dates, not tons of them, but some. But as soon as a guy started pushing for more than a few kisses, I’d break up with him.”

William stared at her. He had considered this possibility but had discarded it as improbable. “I had no idea it was typical for a woman to avoid sex for such a long time after a rape.”

Elizabeth flinched but then responded to his comment. “I don’t know what’s typical. I imagine no two women respond in exactly the same way. But the counselor and I discussed it, and the incident with Michael seems to have left me with issues related to control. And I guess that part, at least, is typical.”

William stretched his arm around her shoulders as she continued.

“Michael took what he wanted, and I had no say in the matter. I’ve never liked being ordered around, but it made me even more sensitive to being told what to do or being pressured, especially about sex. It didn’t just annoy me anymore; it seemed threatening. But if I rejected the guy, I was safe … and in control.”

“I’ve been thinking about that since last night. I owe you an apology for all the times I pushed you for things you weren’t ready to do.”

“Sometimes you scared me, but aside from that time in New York, I hung in there.” She took his hand, twining her fingers with his. “Do you know why?”

“Why?”

“Because there’s another even bigger reason why I haven’t had sex with anyone since … that night. I think love should come before sex, not the other way around. I’ve always felt that way; I don’t want to share something that intimate with someone unless I love him, and I know he loves me too. Sometimes in college I felt like the only virgin on campus, but I was waiting for love.” She sighed, flashing a quick, tight smile that vanished immediately. “Unfortunately I didn’t wait long enough.”

William didn’t comment, but his fingers stroked lightly up and down her arm in a comforting gesture.

“So after that I built walls around my heart and strung barbed wire on top. I still believed in love, but the next time I wanted an ironclad guarantee. And then you came along.”

“And completely baffled you.”

This time her smile warmed her eyes, and she planted a kiss on his jaw. “No one had ever made me feel the things that you did. One moment I’d just want to go with it, to enjoy it, but then the past would tap me on the shoulder and I’d freeze. That’s why I probably seemed to blow hot and cold. My body, my heart, and my mind were at war.”

“And who won in the end?”

“That’s the best part! They’ve declared a truce. They all agree that you’re … oh, all right, I’ll say it again. You’re a wonderful guy. I’m never going to get that song out of my head.”

William chuckled and kissed her cheek. “Was this all from your talk with the counselor?”

“Yes and no. I already knew most of it. But I didn’t know how to get past it, and that’s where she’s helping me.”

“For example?”

“The next time I have a flashback, she wants me to try to change it. Instead of seeing what actually happened, she wants me to insert someone I trust into the scene, someone who could force Michael to stop what he’s doing, or even keep him from starting. I hope you don’t mind; I picked you for the job.”

It seemed absurd to be so pleased that an imaginary version of himself would be protecting her. “Of course I don’t mind. I’d give anything for it to have happened that way.”

She sighed. “Me too. But, anyway, I’m almost looking forward to imagining you giving Michael a good old-fashioned butt-whoopin’, as the saying goes.”

They laughed together. “Don’t think the idea hasn’t crossed my mind,” he said.

“I’m sure Lloyd’s of London, or whoever insures your hands, would just love that,” she teased.

They fell silent after that, Elizabeth’s head drifting onto his shoulder as the band’s mellow rendition of “How Deep is the Ocean” flowed over them. William considered asking her to dance, but the comfort of their private corner combined with the fatigue beginning to seep through his body kept him silent. When the song ended, he recalled a point that he wanted to revisit. “Earlier you said that tomorrow was a mess. What did you mean?”

“I’m really busy,” she said. “I have that early voice lesson and I teach my night class. From start to end, I’m looking at about a 15-hour day. Usually on Thursdays I have some free time in the afternoo, but tomorrow my whole day is jammed full of appointments, meetings, lessons … it’s going to be a nightmare.”

“It sounds like you’re telling me that I’m not going to see you till late tomorrow night.”

“I’m afraid not. And it’ll be really late. On top of everything else, I have to meet with a student after class.”

“That’s not a problem, on one condition.”

“Which is?”

“Bring your overnight bag again.”

“What about Richard?”

“He won’t be there. I’ll make sure of it. After tonight, he owes me.”

“Richard might say that after last night, you owed him.”

“Either way, I promise we’ll be alone. Will you spend the night with me?”

“I’d love to.”

Despite the warmth of her answer, he quickly launched into assurances. “And again, I’m not making the suggestion with any expectations. You know how I feel and what I want, but until you’re ready to move forward, I’m happy for us to be together like we were last night.”

“I don’t think most men would be so understanding.”

“I hope that’s not true, but I have no objection to being considered superior to other men.”

Elizabeth laughed softly. “No objection? It’s your favorite pastime.” She kissed his cheek and then melted his feigned indignation with a gentle touch of her lips to his. “It’s awful the way I tease you, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is.” He dipped his head to hers, intending for the kiss to be brief, but her hand exerted gentle pressure on the back of his neck, keeping his mouth on hers in a warm, lingering caress.

William lifted his head, smiling into her soft green eyes. “I guess we’d better stop this.”

“I forgot we weren’t alone. You have that effect on me.”

“It’s mutual.” He kissed her forehead.

“Well, let’s see. Now that I’ve teased you, I think it’s time for some nagging. And I know the perfect topic. Tell me more about Friday night.”

William had maintained a steadfast—or stubborn, according to Elizabeth—silence about the details of their private birthday celebration on Friday. “I already told you I’d pick you up at seven and we’d have dinner at the penthouse.”

“Oh, come on. At least give me a hint about the menu, because I can tell you’ve got something special planned. You said Mrs. Hill wasn’t staying, so is she cooking things we can reheat later?”

“All right, a small hint. She’s fixing a few things, but the main course is being … brought in from somewhere else.”

“I’ve got it! You’re having it delivered. Lamb from the Big Four? Or something from Charles Nob Hill?”

“You’ll have to wait and see. But speaking of Charles Nob Hill, I need to tell you something.”

She looked up at him, sipping her coffee. “Hmm?”

“I got trapped into taking Anne to dinner there tomorrow. I turned down two invitations from Catherine, and she was getting suspicious, so I asked the two of them to dinner. Catherine said she was busy, but at that point I couldn’t back out of taking Anne.”

“Don’t you think Catherine knows about us by now?”

“I doubt that much gossip finds its way into the rarefied air of the Dean’s suite unless Collins delivers it, and you seem convinced that he’ll keep silent for your sake.”

“Well, okay.” Elizabeth pursed her lips, frowning. “But what about Anne? She must have heard something.”

“Probably, but she wouldn’t tell her mother. Anne’s only defense against Catherine’s micro-management is to avoid volunteering information.”

“And you’re sure that Anne doesn’t want you for herself? She might not be opposed to her mother’s schemes to entrap you.”

William shrugged. “I’m not sure how Anne feels, except that she wishes her mother wouldn’t interfere in her life so much. But she’s never said or done anything to suggest that she thinks of me as more than a friend. Now, is it going to bother you if I take her to dinner?”

“No, it’s fine. You’ve done so much to earn my trust, I have no business turning into a jealous woman now.”

“Thank you. And I should have mentioned before that Roger volunteered to come along. He likes the food at Charles Nob Hill, and it’s our usual jazz club night.”

“Speaking of Roger, here he comes.”

William looked up as Roger reached their table, shaking his head. “What are you two doing here? Can’t stand to be alone?”

The last thing William wanted was to explain that the penthouse was presently the site of a hedonistic romp involving his cousin and Roger’s just-barely-ex-girlfriend, but he couldn’t think of a plausible excuse. Fortunately, Elizabeth stepped in and saved the day. “When the best drummer in San Francisco is here, why would we want to be anywhere else?”

Roger chuckled. “Okay, fine. It’s none of my business. But since you’re here, Will, want to join us for a quick jam session? We’re done and Bill wants to go, but the bar isn’t closing yet.”

“What a great idea!” Elizabeth’s wide-eyed enthusiasm was infectious. “You two have been talking about doing this for weeks.”

“And maybe we can twist this one’s arm into joining us for a song,” Roger said, inclining his head toward Elizabeth.

“In that case, count me in,” William said. He had often imagined accompanying her while she sang, though in his fantasies they were alone, and usually in a state of partial undress.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Elizabeth said, standing up and making a show of yanking William to his feet. “Isn’t it beneath your dignity to accompany a singer?”

William gave her a sly grin. “The way I look at it, I’m not going to be playing along with you. You’re going to be singing along with me.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

The trio approached the stage area, where Bill Collins was busy stuffing music into an old leather satchel. He bid Elizabeth a florid farewell, said a simpler goodbye to his other bandmates, and then departed with a nod at William, one that seemed to carry a peculiar mixture of disdain and obsequiousness.

William seated himself at the piano, and Elizabeth perched beside him on the bench, her face alight with anticipation. He played a few chords to get a feel for the instrument and decided that it was acceptable. He hadn’t played in a jazz group since his days with Charles at Juilliard, and as he watched Roger settling behind his drum set the enjoyment of those days flooded back. Classical music helped him to express his deepest emotions, but jazz helped him to relax.

“What shall we play?” Roger asked.

Warren Black’s cell phone rang, and he pulled it out of his pocket, checking the caller ID information. “It’s my wife. Start without me; I’ll be right back.” He moved away to a corner of the lounge.

“We probably all know the standards,” William said, “so if we stick to those, maybe we can mesh something together.”

“Autumn Leaves?”1 Jim suggested.

William shrugged. “Fine with me. G minor?”

 

Elizabeth was delighted with the turn the evening had taken. Music was mostly a solitary occupation for William. He spent hours each day practicing, usually behind a closed door. Even when he performed with symphony orchestras in front of thousands of people, his status as the soloist set him apart. But jazz, when played with others, was a collaborative enterprise, and it pleased her to see him relishing the experience.

William, Roger, and Jim deftly tossed the musical spotlight back and forth between them as the song floated effortlessly along. With nothing to do but listen and enjoy, Elizabeth focused on William’s hands as they journeyed across the keys with ease and confidence, and on the pleasure clearly visible in his eyes.

The final notes were greeted by applause from Elizabeth and the few remaining patrons. The bartender gave them a “thumbs up” sign, calling out from across the room, “You should lose that other guy and keep this one.”

“Don’t we wish,” Roger replied, grinning at William. “Okay, what’s next? Come on, Warren, get over here. Just pick an instrument, any instrument from your massive collection.” They called Warren their ‘utility fielder’ because of the wide range of instruments he played.

Next they played an energetic rendition of “Witchcraft” during which Elizabeth found it impossible to stop tapping her toes. When they finished, Roger said, “It’s Lizzy’s turn now, isn’t it?”

William smiled at her. “Definitely.”

“Fine with me,” she said, jumping to her feet. “And I know what I want to sing. William hasn’t heard our new song yet.”

Roger snickered. “Gee, I wonder why you picked that one.”

She placed her hands on William’s shoulders. “We’ve been rehearsing it, but it isn’t quite right yet. Jim, do you have a fake book he can use?”

Jim, who had set his bass aside and was tuning his guitar, handed over a well-worn spiral book. Elizabeth opened it to the appropriate page and set it in front of William. “I sing it in G.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her, a flirtatious light in his eyes. “Did you have anyone special in mind when you chose this song?”

“Maybe,” she purred. “But we can discuss that later.” She left one hand on his shoulder as the group began to play the introduction to “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”

How glad the many laddies,
from millionaires to caddies,
Would be to capture me.
But you had such persistence, you wore down my resistance.
I fell, and it was swell.

You’re my big and brave and handsome Romeo.
How I won you I shall never, never know.
It’s not that you’re attractive, but, oh, my heart grew active
When you came into view.

I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie.
All the day and nighttime, hear me sigh.
I never had the least notion that I could fall with so much emotion.

Could you coo, could you care
For a cunning cottage we could share?
The world will pardon my mush,
‘Cause I’ve got a crush, my baby, on you.

This isn’t just a flirtation,
We’re proving that there’s predestination.

I could coo, I could care
For a cunning cottage we could share.
The world will pardon my mush,
‘Cause I’ve got a crush, my baby, on you.2

When the song ended, William’s seductive expression and the way his gaze dropped to her lips made it clear what would have happened had they been alone. She ran her hands over his shoulders while he leaned back against her, sharing as much intimate communion as they could manage in the midst of the band.

“Why did we think the arrangement wasn’t working?” Jim asked. “That was great.”

“Because Will was at the piano, and he’s the real deal,” Roger said. “Seriously, Will, why don’t you just move out here and join us? We could kick some major jazz butt in this town, and I imagine Lizzy wouldn’t object to having you around permanently.”

The manager of the lounge approached them. “You saved your best stuff for last,” he remarked. “I’d love to let you play all night, but it’s closing time.”

“Of course,” Jim said. “Thanks for having us. I hope you’ll call us again.”

“You’ll be hearing from us. Great job tonight.”

 

Twenty minutes later, the band’s equipment was loaded into Roger’s van, and William and Elizabeth exited the hotel for the second time that night. Neither said much on the way to the parking garage. The exhaustion of a long and eventful day was finally catching up with William, and he had to stifle a yawn.

When they reached her car, he stepped close to her, his hands trailing from her shoulders down her arms in a light touch. She began to shiver. “Cold?” he asked, engulfing her in a gentle embrace.

“A little, but actually that wasn’t what made me shiver.”

“Mmm.” His hands slid down her back, drawing her closer, and he bent his head to hers. She melted against him, and William lost all track of time as he kissed her, savoring the sweetness of her mouth and the softness of her body. When at last their lips parted, she buried her face against his neck with a soft sigh and they held each other, basking in the intimacy of the moment.

At last she raised her head. “I should go,” she whispered. “I don’t want to, but it’s so late.”

“Are you sure you aren’t free for lunch tomorrow?”

“I wish I were, but I’m going to have to skip lunch, and dinner too, to fit everything in.”

“But I’ll definitely see you after your night class.”

“Unless you’re out cavorting with Anne.” She sounded serious, and he felt momentarily uneasy, but then he saw the twinkle in her eye.

“Not a chance. I’ll be home by the time your class is over.”

“Okay, then. I’ll call you as soon as I’m done.”

“I’m counting on it. But my bed is going to be a lonely place tonight.”

She sighed and caressed his cheek. “Are you going to be able to get any sleep up in the Love Shack?”

“Maybe I should find a 24-hour drugstore and buy some ear plugs. But those two are bound to run out of steam eventually; in fact, perhaps they already have.”

“I hope so for your sake, but I wouldn’t bet my next paycheck on it.”

William was tempted to ask again if he could spend the night at her place, noting her obvious reluctance to leave him. No. That’s exactly what I said I wasn’t going to do. If she’s changed her mind, she’ll invite me. I’m not going to push her.

He kissed her again, and for a moment afterwards she looked into his eyes, wearing a thoughtful expression that filled him with hope. But instead of issuing the invitation he sought, she slid behind the wheel of her car, smiling up at him with obvious regret in her eyes.

He leaned against the open driver’s door. “Dream about me, cara.”

“I think you can count on that.”

She blew him a kiss as she drove away. He followed her car up the short ramp to the street and stood on the sidewalk watching her taillights fading into the distance.

Tomorrow night can’t come soon enough to suit me.

------
1 “Autumn Leaves,” composed by Joseph Kosma. Performed by Warren Bernhardt (with Jay Anderson and Peter Erskine) on So Real, © 2003, Dmp. Not available on iTunes, but you can listen to a sample of Oscar Peterson's recording.

2 “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Performed by Christiane Noll on The Ira Gershwin Album, © 2001, Fynsworth Alley. Not available on iTunes, but you can listen to a sample of Linda Ronstadt’s recording.