Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei …

It occurred to William, as he finished his final set of bicep curls, that he was probably the only person in the fitness center counting his repetitions in Italian. He was probably also the only person there who had a private exercise room at home. But home was a continent away, and on Monday afternoon he had finally received his doctor’s blessing to resume a limited weight training program. He had considered waiting until he returned to New York, where he wouldn’t have to work out under the competitive scrutiny of men at nearby benches. But any motivation he might have needed to begin at once had been provided by the rapt expression on Elizabeth’s face last Tuesday night as she peeled his shirt from his shoulders.

William jogged for his health, but he engaged in weight training purely for vanity’s sake. He had started years ago in an attempt to imitate Richard, his lanky fourteen-year-old frame an embarrassment compared to his cousin’s muscular build. William, who was tall and naturally slender, would never have Richard’s physique, but he was proud of the additional strength and sculpting his efforts had earned him.

His workout complete, he toweled off, pulled on a clean tee shirt and sweatpants, and dodged the late-afternoon traffic during the short walk back to his building. One advantage offered by the center’s location in the Fairmont Hotel was that he could bypass its showers in favor of the comfort and privacy of his own bathroom.

Privacy was now in abundant supply at the penthouse. Over the past two weeks William had become accustomed to Sonya’s company in the middle of the day and Richard’s in the morning and late at night. But Sonya’s plane had landed in New York a few hours ago, and Richard had moved out just before William left for the Fairmont.

Late this morning, as he and Richard were driving back from their run along the bay, William had finally confessed the celibate state of his relationship with Elizabeth. It had irked him to do so, but he owed Richard some explanation for his pending eviction.

“So I really have been in the way, and that’s why Jane kept trying to put me on a leash. You should have said something sooner, old man.” Richard was quiet for a moment, and then shot a perplexed glance at William. “But in that case, what was the deal on Tuesday? You needed privacy for, what, a hot game of Scrabble?”

William, lacking a plausible explanation that didn’t delve into deeply personal matters, chose to remain silent.

Richard shook his head. “Whatever. I know better than to try to pry you open when you’re being inscrutable. But the real question is, what the hell are you two waiting for? You can barely keep your hands off each other, even in public.”

William shrugged, his eyes straight ahead on the road, and replied, “It’ll happen when the time is right.” But his nonchalance was pure pretense. He had spent the hours since Elizabeth’s departure last night thinking of little but her. He was proud of the restraint he had shown yesterday, starting before dawn in his bed and continuing through the evening at Top of the Mark. But he had paid the price, in the form of a sleepless night.

“Time, shmime. Haven’t you ever heard the saying, ‘Just do it’? Anyway, say no more. I’ll clear out right after lunch.”

“Thanks, Richard. I’m sorry to kick you out this way.”

“Really, old man, it’s no hardship. In fact, it’s just what the doctor ordered. In a hotel with 24-hour room service, we’ll hardly even have to get out of bed.”

“You and Charlotte.”

“Of course. Last night was beyond belief, Will. The World Series of sex. Tie score, extra innings, a nonstop string of home runs.”

“It was that good?” A hot wave of envy washed over William, and he gripped the steering wheel tightly, trying not to lapse into yet another full-blown fantasy of Elizabeth lying beneath him, her face flushed with passion, as he … Stop it! She needs to be treated gently, not devoured by a slobbering beast. Unfortunately the beast was ravenous, demanding to be fed.

Richard let out a little hoot. “Good? You have no idea. And I know I’m safe in saying that, considering your monastic existence. I’m fairly sure the earth really did move.”

“It sounded that way,” William said with a sardonic glance at his cousin.

“I know, we made a lot of noise, which is another reason why I should relocate to neutral turf.”

“I’m surprised by this sudden turnaround. Until last night, you’ve been on the monkish side yourself during your stay here.”

“Yeah, and I know you’ve been scratching your head over it.”

“Are you going to explain, or is it your turn to be inscrutable?” William brought the car to a stop at a red light, and a group of pedestrians stepped into the intersection.

“Whoa.” Richard sat up straight and his eyebrows shot up.

“What?” William followed Richard’s rapt stare, looking without success for something noteworthy.

“You didn’t see her?”

“Who?”

“That gorgeous babe who just crossed in front of us, of course.”

William drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, impatient for the light to change. “Didn’t notice.”

“How could you not notice? That was quite some dress she was almost wearing. I guess love really is blind.”

“Is this your clever way of evading my question?” William had been relieved when the conversational spotlight turned away from him, and he had no intention of stepping back into its glare.

The light turned green and the Ferrari surged ahead, its engine growling. Richard grabbed a towel from his lap and mopped his face. “Damn, I’m still overheated from that run. You’re getting your stamina back, old man; I had to work hard to keep up. Then again, I expended lots of energy last night, so I was at a disadvantage.”

“Still evading, I see.”

“Oh, all right. Richard’s Dilemma, in one hundred words or less. For the past few months, I’ve been waking up in the morning unable to remember the name of the girl I’m with, or even what we did the night before. I’ve sometimes ended up at a girl’s apartment more than once, not because she was worthy of a double-header, but because I couldn’t remember that I’d already been there and done that.”

“They say the memory is the first thing to go.”

“Shut up. My point was, more and more the girls are interchangeable, instantly forgettable, and I’m getting bored.”

“Which is why you just ogled a ‘babe’ in the street.”

“One thing has nothing to do with the other. The day I stop looking is the day you’re playing hymns at my funeral.”

“Fair enough.”

“The other thing is, though it pains me to admit it, either the girls are getting younger or I’m getting older.”

William snorted. “I hate to break this to you, but—”

“I know, I know. And you can cram that superior routine, just because you’re a few years younger. Your day will come, sooner than you think. But I admit, turning thirty-five a few months ago was tough, especially since I found my first gray hair a day or two later. Just don’t ask where I found it.”

There was no danger of that. “Then I gather that you’ve decided it’s time to settle down. I never thought I’d see the day.” Despite his sarcastic remark, William understood. Even at its most extreme, his social life had never approached the bacchanalia that was Richard’s daily existence, yet the arrival of his thirtieth birthday had forced William to re-evaluate his life.

Hell, no.” Richard looked aghast. “I haven’t gone completely round the bend. Settle down.” He snorted. “I pity the woman who tries to domesticate me.”

“As do we all. Sorry, I didn’t mean to impugn your honor.”

“Yeah, watch it, old man. You know the saying about leopards and spots. But I have been re-thinking the way I spend my evenings, or at least the company I keep. I’m tired of the endless rounds of inane chatter and verbal foreplay.”

“If you’re bored with verbal foreplay, what do you call what went on with Charlotte last night at the bar?”

“I stand corrected. I’m tired of dull, unimaginative verbal foreplay. But I’m always interested in talking to a woman who’s heard of Kant and Nietzche and Abner Doubleday, and who has actual opinions on politics and art.”

“Which I suppose is why you like spending time with Jane.” Jane was soft-spoken in her views, but she was intelligent and well read, and had occasionally impressed William with the breadth of her knowledge.

“Yes, exactly. She’s way too smart for Chuckles, though since they seem stalled in ‘just-friends’ mode I suppose it’s a moot point. But as for Charlotte, I haven’t had that much fun talking to a woman in years. She’s got wit and brains to spare.”

“I’ve always enjoyed talking to her.”

“And, hallelujah, she’s not coy about what she wants. She knows her way around a bedroom … and a bathroom … and a kitchen … and—”

“Too much information.”

“Oh, get off your high horse. You’re just jealous because you’d like to do Lizzy in all of those rooms, plus some others, I’m sure.”

William hadn’t commented, but Richard’s statement had been impossible to deny.

And so Richard was gone, ensconced in a suite at the Four Seasons. Aside from Mrs. Hill’s unobtrusive presence in the afternoons, William had the penthouse to himself. He unlocked the door, dropped his keys on the hall table, and made his way to his bathroom, mentally organizing the remainder of his day. A shower first, obviously. There would be time for a short practice session before meeting Anne and Roger for dinner. And I’ve got to get myself under control before Lizzy gets here tonight, or I’ll scare her away for good.

 

Jane looked up from her book, smiling to herself as Elizabeth dashed into the condo and called out a hasty greeting on her way to the shower. It gave Jane great pleasure to see her sister so happy, secure in the certainty of William’s affection. Not that he was truly good enough for Elizabeth—no man was that deserving—but there was no question that he adored her. Had there been any doubt, Elizabeth’s story of the love and patience he had shown after her flashback had offered ample proof.

If only things would work out as well in court tomorrow. The judge was deliberating overnight and planned to announce his decision in the morning. Jane found it impossible to remain detached when the fate of a woman and her three children rested in her hands. Or, rather, the judge’s hands now.

Elizabeth, swathed in a bathrobe, returned to the living room. She perched on the arm of the sofa, her gaze sharp as she studied Jane. “How’s everything going?”

“Fine. How was school?”

“Not bad. Are you still going to join Char and me at the spa tomorrow afternoon?”

“I hope so. We should have a decision in the morning.”

“And you’re worried about it.”

Jane shook her head. “You know I always worry about cases like this one. But at this point all we can do is wait and hope that we convinced the judge.”

“I’m sure you did a wonderful job,” Elizabeth said. “You always do.” She slid off the sofa arm and onto the cushion. “Tell me how things went today.”

Jane was touched by Elizabeth’s concern, but it was obvious from her surreptitious glance at the clock and the way she was fidgeting with the belt on her robe that her thoughts were elsewhere. “Lizzy, I’m fine. I’m enjoying a quiet evening with a book Richard lent me. And you’re itching to get over to the penthouse.”

Elizabeth looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry, Jane. It’s just that … ”

“I know. You’re in love, and all you can think about is being with him. So go get dressed. He’s waiting, and I’m sure all he can think about is being with you.”

Elizabeth leaned across the couch and hugged Jane. “I love you.” She jumped to her feet and hurried into the bedroom.

Jane had read only a few pages of her book when Elizabeth reappeared, casually dressed and carrying her overnight bag.

“Before I go, I want to ask you something,” Elizabeth said. “About our conversation last night …”

Jane heard the hesitation in Elizabeth’s voice. “Are you having second thoughts?”

Elizabeth licked her lips, setting her bag on the floor. “Not really. I know you’re right; at this point he needs a signal that it’s okay to move forward. But I’m still not sure what to say. I mean, how do you look a guy in the eye and tell him that you want to …” Her voice trailed off. “I know I sound like a twit.”

“No, you don’t,” Jane replied, smiling. “You sound like someone facing a new experience, which is exactly what you are. Lizzy, just be honest. Tell him how you feel.”

“But how do I word it? ‘Take me, you big, hot hunk of man’?”

Jane laughed. “He’d definitely get the message. And I think he’d appreciate it if you were direct, though maybe not that direct.”

“Yeah, if I said that, he’d probably run off screaming into the night.”

“I doubt it. But, seriously, he’s going to be worried about moving too fast and scaring you, so I’m sure he’d appreciate not having to guess what’s on your mind.”

“I hope when the time is right, I’ll know what to say without sounding like a blithering idiot.”

“You will,” Jane said with a smile. She wished that Elizabeth could see herself as William obviously saw her. “But if you can’t find the words, try showing him how you feel by the way you kiss him and touch him.”

The merry sparkle in Elizabeth’s eyes was dimmed by a skeptical frown. “You’re not seriously suggesting that I reach out and grab his …”

“Oh, my gosh, no!” Jane couldn’t help giggling. “Though if you want his undivided attention, that would do the trick.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Poor William. If he had the slightest idea what we’re discussing, he’d die.”

“Lizzy, my best advice is, don’t make this complicated. Just talk to him.”

“I love him so much, Jane.”

“I know you do. And he loves you.” Jane stood up and hugged Elizabeth, which allowed her to hide the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She brushed them away before releasing Elizabeth. “Now, go on over there, and have a wonderful time.”

“Thanks. I’ll see you at the spa tomorrow.”

Jane wore a tender smile as Elizabeth grabbed her bag and coat and rushed out the door, her ponytail flying behind her. Alone again, Jane wandered into the kitchen, put on the teakettle, and dabbed her eyes with a paper napkin. Her tears were primarily of the happy variety. Elizabeth had finally emerged from the cocoon in which she had wrapped herself years ago, and to see her radiant with love and joy was poignant.

I wonder if I’ll ever feel that way again. Not that I begrudge Lizzy her happiness; no one deserves it more. But …

While she waited for the kettle to boil, Jane went to her bedroom and sat in front of her laptop computer, which rested on a small desk in the corner. Her eyes warmed when she saw the e-mail message that awaited her:

From: Charles Bingley
Date: Thursday, October 25, 9:13 pm
To: Jane
Subject: re: This weekend

Hi Jane,

Finally booked my flight. The best Will and I could come up with was to meet at the airport on Sat. morning. Pretty sad, huh? But that means I’m free after lunch. Want to meet for a run in the park? Or on the Embarcadero. You choose, either one’s fine w/me.

Also, Caroline said she’d be calling you to set up Sun. brunch. She’s got some new place she wants to try. Lizzy’s welcome too, but Caro prob. won’t mention that. You know how she is about Lizzy.

How’s the court case going? I’m sure you’re sitting around stewing about it, but I know you were brilliant.

Can you tell me the time and place for Lizzy’s birthday party again? I keep writing it down and losing the piece of paper.

I’m looking forward to this weekend—

Charles

The kettle whistled. She hurried to the kitchen, poured herself a cup of tea, and returned with it to the bedroom. Taking a cautious sip of the hot liquid, she read Charles’s message again.

 

As was always the case when Elizabeth came over after dark, William had insisted on meeting her in the parking garage and walking her back to the penthouse. Since the garage was next door to his building, she considered this an excess of chivalry. Earlier in their relationship she had sometimes “forgotten” to call and notify him of her impending arrival, but she had finally decided that it was a small price to pay for his peace of mind. At least he no longer insisted on picking her up at home each time they planned to spend an evening at the penthouse.

Upstairs, he helped her off with her coat and hung it in the closet. Then he picked up her overnight bag. “I’ll take this to the bedroom.” But before he could go, their eyes met in an intimate look that sent a shiver through Elizabeth. William dropped the bag, capturing her face in his hands. “I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered, bending his head to hers.

Their kiss ignited a shower of sparks inside her, and with a low moan she wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed herself close to him. Her few remaining doubts about her intentions for the night were vaporized by the heat of their embrace. Nothing had ever felt so right.

He lifted his head, desire radiating from his eyes. “I missed you last night,” he murmured, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “I thought I’d go mad, lying there aching for you.”

“I missed you too. I couldn’t stop thinking about how warm and safe I felt lying in your arms.”

A frown line creased William’s forehead, and he released her, retrieving her bag from the floor. “Yes, well, I’ll take this down the hall.”

Elizabeth stood staring at an orchid on the hall table, puzzling over what had just happened. He had seemed on the verge of taking her to his bedroom, not her overnight bag, when his mood had changed. It reminded her of last night when they were saying their goodbyes. She had expected him to ask once more to come home with her, and she doubted she could have refused him. She had even subtly encouraged another entreaty by asking if he would be able to get any sleep upstairs. But instead of making the request she expected, he had helped her into her car, hurrying her on her way.

Still pondering the mystery that was William Darcy, she wandered into the living room. Almost immediately, he reappeared and joined her on the sofa. “Are you tired?” he asked.

“Yes and no. It’s been a long day, but I’m usually pretty wired after my night class and it takes me a while to come down again. How about you?”

“I was, but I took a nap late this afternoon instead of practicing.”

“So I assume Richard and Char kept you awake last night?”

“It wasn’t that bad, but I did hear them a few times. Have you talked to Charlotte today?”

“She called to set a time to meet at the spa tomorrow. Apparently they had just as good a time as the noise suggested.” Charlotte had been at an uncharacteristic loss for words, but clearly the night had far exceeded her expectations.

William snorted. “Richard exhausted his supply of baseball metaphors trying to describe it. Did you tell her that we overheard them?”

“I didn’t see the point.”

“I told Richard, and he had a good laugh at the two of us tiptoeing past their trail of clothing. I suppose you know they’re at the Four Seasons tonight.”

“Uh huh. With 24-hour room service and everything.”

“Speaking of which, are you hungry?”

“Actually, yeah, I am. I had half a sandwich before class, but that’s all I’ve eaten since … let’s see, since lunch yesterday. I had to skip dinner last night too, because of seeing the counselor.”

He stretched his arm around her shoulders. “You need to take better care of yourself, cara.”

“You sound like me, a couple of months ago.”

He grinned. “I suppose it’s my turn to nag now. If you’d like something to eat, there’s a pot of vegetable soup in the kitchen. Mrs. Hill made it in case you were hungry.”

“Oh, that sounds good.”

He stood and held out a hand to help her to her feet. “Then let’s get you some dinner.”

A few minutes later they were seated at the kitchen table sharing a bottle of wine while Elizabeth enjoyed her soup. “This really hits the spot,” she sighed. “Thank you so much.”

“No need to thank me. Mrs. Hill did the work.”

“But it was your idea, wasn’t it? You knew I might be hungry, and you also know how much I love her vegetable soup.”

He shrugged diffidently and turned his gaze out the window. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Would you like some more wine?”

“Maybe in a few minutes.” Elizabeth’s eyes warmed in tender amusement. He was sometimes embarrassed to be caught making small, thoughtful gestures. “How was your dinner tonight?”

“Pleasant enough. It was good to have Roger there. Anne and I both tend to be quiet.”

“An understatement for the ages. What did he think of Anne?”

“I didn’t have a chance to ask. It was getting late, and he volunteered to take her home so I could get back here to meet you.”

“That was nice of him.” She set down her spoon, an impish gleam in her eyes. “So, was vegetable soup supposed to be the first course of our dinner tomorrow? And has this late-night snack disrupted your plans?”

William shook his head with a long-suffering air, but the smile in his eyes told a different story. “I see that Ms. Inquisitive is on the job again. Very well, ma’am, I’ll answer that question. Vegetable soup is not now, nor has it never been, on the menu for tomorrow.”

“You realize it’s dangerous to have me here tonight, don’t you? It’s a perfect opportunity to snoop for clues. I can check out the groceries in the fridge, for example.”

He shrugged with a superior air. “Go ahead. There’s nothing incriminating in there.”

“Or maybe I’ll check the closets for my birthday present.”

“That would be ‘presents,’ plural. In fact, I thought I might give you one tonight. Would you like that?”

“If you’re expecting me to say, ‘No, thanks, I’d rather wait till tomorrow,’ you’re crazy.”

He drained his wine glass and stood up. “All right, then. I’ll be right back.”

Elizabeth was just finishing her soup when William returned to the kitchen carrying a large box wrapped in silver foil paper. Three smaller packages were piled on top of the box.

“I thought you said one present tonight, not that I’m complaining.”

“They go together.” He cleared a space on the table and set the packages there. “Open the big one first.”

With a childlike smile, Elizabeth ripped off the paper, revealing a cardboard box whose markings identified the contents as a DVD player. She and Jane had been talking about buying one, but hadn’t done so yet.

“The salesperson said it was the best one on the market,” he said. “I forget how many DVDs it holds, but it’s a large number.”

Elizabeth grinned at the thought of this bonanza coming the salesperson’s way. William was an audiophile, knowledgeable about stereo components and speakers, but his expertise did not extend to video equipment. No doubt he had simply purchased the most expensive DVD player in the store. “Thank you,” she said, jumping from her chair to give him a kiss. “You’re very sweet.”

“Open the others.” He sat back in his chair regarding her fondly, obviously pleased with the success of his gift.

She returned to her seat and chose another package, bursting into laughter when she tore it open. “South Pacific on DVD! As if I haven’t been getting enough of it at rehearsals.”

“That’s from Sonya. She said it could serve as a memento of all the time you spent coaching.”

“Have you ever seen it?”

William shook his head.

“How anyone could grow up in New York and be so ignorant about Broadway musicals is beyond me. Why don’t you borrow it? Maybe some day you’ll feel like watching it. You can see Mitzi Gaynor singing ‘I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.’”

“I’d rather have you sing it for me.”

“Don’t hold your breath. It’s going to be a long time before I recover from rehearsal burnout on those songs. Okay, let’s see what else I have here.” She opened the third package and found another DVD: The Philadelphia Story.

“Remember our conversation about this movie?” he asked, an eager light in his eyes. “I think it was the first time we drove up to Stinson Beach. We said we wanted to watch it together.”

“Of course I remember. And we’ve never gotten around to doing that.”

“That’s why I wanted to give you these presents now. Since we’re not tired, I thought maybe we could watch the movie tonight.”

She was surprised that he wasn’t anxious to go to bed. “Sure, I guess we could do that.”

“Good. Now open the last present.”

This one had been bundled into a small paper bag. She laughed when she unveiled a package of microwave popcorn. “Perfect.” She stood up, holding out her hand to him. He rose, and she wound her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Thank you so much. I love my presents.”

“You’re welcome. And you’ll get your main gift tomorrow. Shall we fix the popcorn and go into the library?” The Fitzwilliams’ DVD player was installed there.

“I have a better idea. There’s a TV in your bedroom, right?”

“Yes, but I’ve never used it.”

“Well, let’s see if it works, and we can try out my new DVD player in there.”

“You mean watch the movie in bed?” He gave her a wary glance.

“Why not? We can change into our PJs, get comfortable. And we could take the popcorn and the rest of the wine in there, unless you object to eating in bed.”

“As long as we don’t end up lying on popcorn hulls all night.” He shrugged. “All right. If that’s what you want, I’ll work on hooking up the DVD player.”

“And I’ll make the popcorn and grab the wine.”

With a distracted nod, he took the DVD player and the DVDs and departed, leaving her more mystified than ever. She had expected him to enthusiastically endorse the idea of snuggling in bed while watching the movie, yet his reaction had been lukewarm at best. She started the popcorn and leaned on the counter, her chin supported by one fist as she stared absently through the microwave’s semi-transparent door.

Her ardent suitor seemed to have cooled, just when she was ready to move forward. She remembered Jane’s opinion that he would need for her to take initiative, but she had done that earlier during their passionate kiss, and again with her suggestion that they move into his bedroom. In both cases, he had retreated in response to her advances.

The popping sounds slowed to a trickle, and she poured the popcorn into a bowl. She juggled the bowl, the wine bottle, and their glasses, managing to make it to the bedroom without dropping anything. “I don’t think I’ve ever had wine and popcorn together before,” she said as she deposited her cargo on the night table.

William had set the DVD player on top of the television and was hunkered down alongside the TV, connecting the cables. “I think I’ve got it,” he said. He rose to his feet and fumbled with the remote control, succeeding only in obtaining static. He swore under his breath, pointed the remote at the TV, and tried again in vain. “It must be broken.”

“Try putting the TV on Channel 3.”

He did as she suggested, and the DVD player’s setup screen appeared. “I see that superior gleam in your eye,” he grumbled.

“My poor technologically challenged guy,” she said sweetly, stroking his shoulders. To her dismay, he stiffened at her touch. Unsure how to deal with his peculiar mood, she released him. “I’ll go into the bathroom and change.”

A few minutes later she stood inspecting herself in the bathroom mirror. One of her recent errands had been a trip to Victoria’s Secret to find something appropriate to wear to bed. She had bypassed the transparent baby-doll nightgowns and other provocative garments and had settled on a satin button-front nightshirt in a deep shade of amethyst. It wasn’t sexy, precisely, but it was infinitely more attractive than the various oversized, ink-stained tee shirts in her drawer at home.

She yanked off her ponytail holder and fluffed her hair around her shoulders, the way she knew he liked it. Then, taking a deep breath, she opened the bathroom door and stepped through.

 

William stood staring blindly out the window, trying to calm the attack of nerves that had seized him while changing into his nightclothes. He had begun to regret inviting Elizabeth to spend the night. How did I ever think I could sleep with her again without doing a lot more than sleeping?

His troubles had begun immediately on their arrival at the penthouse, when the mere thought of her overnight bag residing in his bedroom had spiked his desire to nearly the boiling point. Her passionate response to his kiss had only made matters worse; he had been within seconds of lifting her into her arms and carrying her to off bed.

Since then he had devised a series of distractions, hoping to delay bedtime until he was too exhausted for anything but sleep, but she had short-circuited his plan by proposing that they watch the movie in his bedroom. Even her light touch on his shoulders had been unbearably arousing. Doesn’t she have the slightest idea what she’s doing to me?

No, of course she didn’t. She was a virgin in every sense but the physiological. He would have to remember what she had said earlier: that she felt safe in his arms. That was what she needed, to feel safe. Not to have a man panting after her who’s been practically a walking erection for the past 24 hours. Or the past five months, to be honest.

She came out of the bathroom, looking like a dream in her satiny shirt, her hair loose and slightly disheveled, her delectable legs bared from mid-thigh to toe. In his mind he had already unbuttoned the shirt, filling his palms with the lush breasts that had become a near obsession since he had fondled and kissed them on Tuesday night. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard as he frantically struggled to wrest control from his overheated body.

“William, what’s wrong?” Her sweet, musical voice only compounded his distress.

“I don’t think I can do this,” he muttered.

“You can’t do what?”

He hadn’t intended to say the words aloud. Perhaps it was just as well. “I’m sorry, Lizzy. I know you’re counting on me, but I don’t think I can share a bed with you tonight.”

She stepped closer to him, and he nearly groaned aloud as the intoxicating scent of jasmine filled his nostrils. He fought warring urges: to open a safe distance between them, or to yank her into his arms and devour her. A safe distance. And that would be … Cleveland?

“Tell me what’s bothering you,” she said softly, her eyes full of tender concern.

Something inside of him gave way and the words poured out, eluding his efforts to halt them. “This is torture, Lizzy. I’ve spent the past 24 hours thinking of nothing but having you in my bed, and I’m not talking about sleeping. I know you need for me to be patient and gentle, and I’d rather cut off my arm than do anything to hurt or frighten you. But you’re in my blood, and I can’t take much more of this.”

“William—”

“I’m a man, not a superhero. I was already in a bad way before you came out of the bathroom, but seeing you now, beautiful and sexy …” He sighed, shaking his head. “It’s too much. If we get into that bed, I’m going to be dying to make love to you. I don’t mean that I’d try to coerce you into doing anything; I would never do that. But I’m not going to be able to sleep, or even lie there quietly, with you so close to me. I’ll be tossing and turning all night and we’ll both be miserable.”

He stopped to grab a breath. Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, but he wasn’t finished yet.

“I can think of two solutions. We can go to the library and watch the movie, and maybe by the time we’re ready for bed I’ll be so sleepy that I won’t be able to stay awake no matter how close you are. Or I can sleep in another bedroom.”

The seductive expression in her eyes set his heart hammering wildly. She moved closer, until their bodies were almost touching. “Or,” she murmured, sliding her hands up his chest, “we could go to bed right now. Together. ”

“But—”

“Shhh.” She raised up on tiptoe, locking her arms around his neck. “You can stop protecting me from yourself. It’s not necessary.”

The heat of her kiss took him by surprise, but he couldn’t have resisted at any price. They stood locked together in mindless rapture as the minutes passed, giving and taking, tasting and exploring. His hands roved down her back, the satin of her nightshirt sliding smoothly beneath his fingers. She moaned against his mouth, her hands tangling in his hair, and pressed herself closer.

Then she released him and stepped out of his arms. Befuddled by desire, he simply stared as she captured his hand, leading him the few steps to his bed. She perched on the edge of the mattress, her smile brimming with tantalizing promise, and drew him down to sit beside her.

“I hope I’m not dreaming,” he whispered, reaching out to touch her cheek.

As their lips met, a lone coherent thought flitted through his mind: At least this time I had a chance to turn down the bed first.

 

He wasn’t dreaming, nor was she, but Elizabeth had to admit that the night had taken on a dreamlike quality. Together they sank down onto the bed, sharing a spine-tingling kiss that she wished would never end. But it did end eventually, and she lay back, her head resting on one of William’s luxurious down pillows. He lay on his side facing her, supporting his weight on one elbow. “Are you sure about this?” he asked, his voice like rich velvet as he caressed her cheek.

She nodded and reached up to smooth his hair.

“What about … what if you have a flashback?”

“I don’t think I will, not tonight. I asked the counselor to help me with this. I told her that the man I loved was leaving town soon, and I didn’t want to wait till he got back to make love to him. So she made some suggestions.”

“You did that for me?” His warm brown eyes shone with tenderness.

“I did it for us.”

He kissed her softly. “Is there anything I need to know? Besides that I should keep my weight off you, obviously.”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

“Not at all. Anything else?”

“Well, in a way it’s my first time.”

“I understand. We’ll take this slowly.”

“Good, ’cause I’m a little nervous. Or, on second thought, make that ‘a lot nervous.’”

“You’re not the only one.” He combed his fingers through her hair. “It’s a big responsibility, being a woman’s first lover.”

My first lover. Her heart swelled at the words. She stroked his chest, feeling his warmth through the tee shirt he wore. “Is there anything I need to know?”

“Like what?”

“Your heart. For a while you weren’t allowed to do this, and I’ve heard stories of men having heart attacks in bed with women.”

He chuckled, leaning over for a slow, warm kiss. “I’m fine. And my blood pressure will probably plummet once I’m not in a constant state of frustration. Speaking of which …”

She watched his hand as he slowly unbuttoned her nightshirt. He spread it open and slipped it off her arms, leaving her naked except for her underpants. Unwilling to be caught in utilitarian cotton briefs again, she had bought a lacy pair of panties in the same shade of amethyst as her shirt. His eyes grew dark, almost black. “You are so lovely,” he breathed.

She trembled as his hand slid from her waist upward to capture a breast in his palm. His touch was so warm, so gentle as he caressed her with the expertise and dedication of a true connoisseur. “So lovely,” he whispered again. She reached up, pulling his head down, and eagerly claimed his mouth as it came down on hers.

After a rapturous interval of long, deep kisses, he raised his head. His eyes, roving restlessly over her body, made her uncomfortably aware that she was nearly naked and he was still fully clothed. “Could we turn off the lights?” she whispered.

He rolled away from her, turning off the lamp on the night table nearest them. “Is that better?”

She started to reach for the lamp on the opposite side of the bed, until he placed a gentle but restraining hand on her shoulder. “Leave it on, cara. You’re so beautiful, I want to see you.”

It occurred to Elizabeth that if she were shrouded in darkness, the same would be true of him. “I guess you’re right. I want to see you too. But you’re overdressed, don’t you think?”

He sat up, shrugged off his robe, and pulled his tee shirt over his head. “Is that better?”

“Mmmm. It sure is.” She sat up as well, facing him, and slid her hands slowly over his chest. She had called him “perfect” two nights ago, and her opinion was unchanged. His broad shoulders and chest were exactly to her taste, strong and toned, yet with a lean silhouette. She ran a finger downward, tracing a slender trail of dark hair that vanished inside his pajama bottoms. His torso jerked reflexively as she reached the waistband, and with a soft groan he leaned forward, pulling her against him. His mouth covered hers as he lowered her to the bed, their bodies molded together.

What is it about the feeling of skin against skin? Elizabeth couldn’t get enough of the intoxicating sensation of his hard chest rubbing against her breasts. She strained against him as he kissed a searing path along her throat, his breath hot against her neck.

He pushed her gently onto her back, leaning over her, his hand cupping her breast. She sighed as he teased the sensitive nipple to a taut, pleasure-drenched peak. Then he lowered his head and nuzzled her breast gently, exploring with agonizing thoroughness. At last his tongue lapped at her nipple, circling it, sending shafts of delight shimmering through her. When he sucked the nipple into his mouth she closed her eyes, weaving her hands through his hair. She cradled his head at her breast, and a soft sigh escaped her throat.

He raised his head, and stared deep into her eyes. She saw urgent need blazing there, and felt it in the bunched muscles of his back and shoulders. Yet his caresses were slow, almost reverent. Obviously he was holding back for her sake, and with that understanding came a powerful wave of love that brought sudden tears to her eyes. In a frantic attempt to repay his solicitude she rolled onto her side and deposited a trail of urgent kisses along his neck. She was rewarded by his soft groan.

“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” she murmured, nipping his shoulder.

“Men aren’t beautiful,” he rasped.

“You are.” On an impulse, she lowered her head and ran her tongue over his tiny brown nipple. With a sound that was half laugh, half groan, he urged her head back up to his and kissed her hard on the mouth, his restraint seeming to crumble. His hands slipped beneath the waistband of her panties, cupping her bare buttocks and pressing her tightly against him. That he was fully aroused had been evident, but never more so than now, as he ground his hips forward with a deep groan. He dragged his mouth from hers and buried his face in her neck, still rubbing himself against her. She clung to him, the friction generating a delicious tingling sensation that compelled her to rock her hips in a rhythm that matched his.

Then he released her and rolled onto his back, his breathing labored, his face flushed. “I need a minute,” he gasped. “I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but …”

”It’s not your heart, is it?” Despite his earlier assurances, she was still worried.

He laughed, a tight, choked sound, and drew her into his arms. “My problem is well south of there.”

“Oh.” She felt like an idiot for missing the obvious implication.

“I’m trying to take this slowly. But I’ve wanted you for so long, and you’re so …” He stopped, taking a shaky breath, his hands sliding over her body. “Cara, you’re driving me mad.”

She might have predicted that it would frighten her to hear that he was approaching the limits of his control but, perhaps because she trusted him so completely, instead she found it deeply exciting. It made her feel womanly and desirable to know that she could reduce him to a state of almost incoherent need. Above all, it made her feel powerful. She felt her confidence surge, and with it came a bold and irresistible impulse.

She stroked her way down his torso, her eyes locked with avid curiosity on the sizable bulge distorting the silk of his pajama bottoms. When her hands reached his waistband, she hesitated. But she forced herself to shed her inhibitions and continued her downward progress.

He gasped and grabbed her hand. “Lizzy, wait.”

“You don’t want me to touch you?” His grip on her hand was half-hearted at best and she easily shook it off, exploring him gently through the barrier of his pajamas.

He took a shaky breath, his eyes burning into hers, but didn’t answer. She slipped her hand tentatively inside his pajamas and brushed his swollen flesh lightly with her fingertips. His hips jerked and he closed his eyes, making a small, almost anguished sound that melted any remaining hesitation she felt.

“Why don’t we take these off.” She slid her hands under the waistband, and he raised his hips to assist her. She pulled the pajamas downward and discarded them, drawing in a rapt breath at the sight of him lying naked on the bed, strong and virile and marvelously male.

She stretched out on her side, leaning over him. Her hand skimmed from his waist along his abdomen and then closed around his rigid shaft. She loved how he felt—warm and smooth and thrumming with life—but she loved his passionate response even more. Her palm slid over the damp, pliable tip and he gasped, lifting his hips off the bed. “Is this okay?” she asked. “I mean, am I … ”

“Okay?” He made a sound between a laugh and a groan. “I should make you stop, but I’ve waited so long to feel your hands on me, and—” He sucked in a breath through clenched teeth as her fingers continued their exploration.

“I don’t want to stop,” she whispered. She had never imagined that giving a man pleasure could stir so much desire in her, but there was no denying the liquid heat that throbbed through her veins. Her caresses grew bolder, his gasps and moans and the erratic movements of his hips guiding her hands. Her lips wandered over his chest, planting gentle kisses on his warm skin. One of his hands tangled in her hair while the other massaged her breast, sending shivery currents of delight to the center of her being.

His breathing soon became ragged, and when she lifted her head she saw that his face was contorted and he stared the ceiling, glassy-eyed. He held his breath, his entire body tensed, and with a long, low groan, he erupted. The convulsive motion of his hips subsided and the tension drained from his body until he lay motionless on the bed, his head resting against the pillows.

She snuggled close to his side and brushed her lips across his cheek, her arm draped loosely around him. She tried to relax, but her body tingled with unsated desire. What if he falls asleep now? She had heard many stories about men who went to sleep immediately after sex, and for a moment she regretted her boldness in pleasuring him despite his initial, albeit weak, protest. But then his eyes opened and with a contented, rumbling groan, he wrapped her in his arms.

“I love you,” he murmured hoarsely. “And I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“Tonight was supposed to be about us, together, not about my needs. It was selfish of me not to stop you before it went that far.”

“I don’t believe you heard any complaints from me.”

“That’s because you’re the most understanding woman in the world.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” she retorted with a pert grin. “We both know that’s not true.”

He smiled, toying idly with her hair. “All right. In this instance, you’re being understanding.”

“Actually, it was just what I needed to relax. The counselor—I promise, I’m not going to keep mentioning her, but she said that the more I felt like I was in control of what happened between us, the easier it would be. And she was right. I liked it, and I really did feel like I was in charge.”

“You certainly were. I’d say I was putty in your hands, except putty isn’t anywhere near that hard.”

She giggled.

“I should at least apologize for making a mess.” He kissed her. “I’ll be right back.” He got out of bed and crossed to the bathroom, affording her a heart-stopping look at the delicious rear view she hadn’t yet seen.

For modesty’s sake she tried not to blatantly ogle him when he returned a minute or two later. He handed her a warm, wet washcloth as he climbed back into bed. With a shy smile, she dabbed at her hands and deposited the cloth on the nightstand. Then he drew her against his body. “I believe it’s your turn,” he murmured, his hand capturing her breast. “Lie back and relax, love.”

She felt a twinge of awkwardness but she did as he suggested, and he leaned over her, his kisses warm and deep. He teased her with slow, gentle caresses, his hands worshipping her body with a tenderness that melted her heart. Her breasts received special attention as he explored every contour first with his hands, and then with his mouth. She floated on a soft cloud of pleasure as William’s lips pulled delicately at her nipple, his skillful caresses introducing her to a new world of sensual delight.

Elizabeth opened her eyes halfway and found him observing her intently. As he held her gaze, his hand stroked its way down across her abdomen. His fingers grazed her thighs, which fell open as he moved ever closer to the center of her desire. “Your skin is so soft, cara, like silk.”

A whimper escaped her as he brushed two fingers over the strip of amethyst satin between her legs. Even through the fabric, his touch was electrifying. He repeated the gentle caress in a slow rhythm, bending his head to nuzzle her breast, and she bit her lip as pleasure arced through her body. Just when she thought she couldn’t wait any longer, he slipped his fingers under the thin fabric. She whimpered again, louder this time, closing her eyes against the sharp, almost painfully delicious sensations.

She moaned in protest when he removed his hand, but it was only to draw her panties down her legs, discarding them before he resumed his caresses. “My beautiful Lizzy,” he whispered, capturing her lips with his. She kissed him greedily, gripping his shoulders as she spiraled upward, ever upward.

His mouth returned to her breasts, feeding at them hungrily as he continued to stroke her, his fingers spreading fire in their wake. She began to circle her hips against his hand as a towering wave of rapture amassed inside her. She strained forward, desperately seeking release, and at last with a soft cry she tumbled over the crest of the wave into ecstatic oblivion.

William gathered her into his arms, stroking her back and whispering endearments as she drifted slowly back to earth. She buried her heated face against his neck, still trembling from little pulsing aftershocks. As she gradually emerged from her sensual fog, she pressed a series of light kisses to his neck and jaw and then rested her head on his chest with a contented sigh.

“Are you okay?” He brushed her hair away from her face.

“‘Okay’ isn’t really the right word. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘wow.’”

His chuckle resonated in his chest. “I’m glad.”

Elizabeth lifted her head, giving him a shy smile. “You know, nobody’s ever done … that … to me before.”

“But certainly you and—” William paused, frowning, and then continued. “You said things had been escalating between the two of you before that night. I assumed that at some point you would have  …”

She sighed. “No.”

William’s expression became grim. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. That selfish bastard has probably never thought of anyone but himself in his entire life.”

Michael had been aggressive in seeking his own physical gratification during their late-night drives, but had shown no interest in Elizabeth’s needs. Yet another reason why I was stupid to think he loved me. What a difference from William. She pressed her lips to his chest, and he wrapped her in a tight embrace.

His thoughts must have been in a similar vein, because after a moment of silence he said, “I’ve never seen anything as sexy as you were just now, cara, lying naked in my bed, trembling and crying out from my touch. You can’t imagine how much that excited me.”

Actually, she could, because she’d been aroused by his reactions to her caresses. In addition, ample evidence of his excitement was pressing against her thigh, hard and hot and insistent. Her hand traveled slowly down his body, her fingers caressing him lovingly, and he shuddered. “Lizzy, I want you,” he groaned.

His mouth opened over hers with urgent, almost desperate hunger. The kiss was followed by another, and another, and despite the sensual peak she had so recently scaled desire sprang back to life inside her. He rolled her on top of him, his hands massaging her buttocks, imparting little sparks of pleasure as he held her tightly against him, pressing his hips upward with a ragged groan. Her own hands sought his chest, and she felt his heart pounding out a fierce rhythm.

“Lizzy?” he murmured in a low, passion-roughened voice that made her tremble. She knew what he wanted, and she wanted it too, despite the tingle of fear that rippled through her. It was time to demolish the final barrier between them, to be truly united at last.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“My darling Lizzy. I’ve wanted you … it seems like forever.”

“I know.” She lowered her head to his for a long kiss of molten heat.

He rolled them onto their sides and released her, turning away to open a drawer in the night table. She snuggled against him, nuzzling his neck while he rolled on a condom. That task complete, he kissed her softly and spoke in gentle tones. “You said earlier that it would help you to be in control. If you want, I can lie on my back and you can—”

“No.” She felt herself blushing. The counselor had made this same suggestion, and Elizabeth had spent much of last night captivated by this stirring vision. But now the thought filled her with panic. “No, that’s okay.”

“Are you sure? Because I wouldn’t mind, not in the least.” He quirked an eyebrow, a lascivious glint in his eyes.

She shook her head. There was too much risk of spoiling this first, momentous joining through her inexperience.

His eyes were nearly black with desire, but they held tenderness as well, tenderness so profound that it helped to calm her. He hovered over her, one hand skimming her body while their mouths melded with passionate intensity. She ran her hands along his torso, reveling in his warmth and strength and the way his muscles leapt reflexively at her touch.

He coaxed her thighs apart with gentle strokes and then moved to kneel between her legs. Her eyes drifted shut as he began to rub himself against the tender flesh he had caressed to the point of shuddering surrender just a short time ago. She circled her hips slowly, luxuriating in the delicious sensation.

“Lizzy.” His voice was hoarse.

She opened her eyes, and he held her gaze. “I love you,” he whispered. Then he grasped her hips and pushed himself slowly inside her, a deep groan escaping his throat.

He felt so large, so potent, and she bit her lip, her body tensing in expectation of the searing pain she remembered all too well from before. No. This is William. He would never hurt me. But when he pressed forward again, more firmly this time, she felt a sharp stab of pain that only grew stronger as he began to move inside her.

She considered asking him to slow down or even to hold still until the pain stopped, but just then he exhaled a shaky breath. “So good,” he muttered thickly. He leaned forward, his arms supporting his weight, his passionate gaze locking with hers. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she lied, mesmerized by the expression of fierce ecstasy on his face. He had waited so long for this moment, and she resolved to persevere, pain or no pain.

He murmured her name and began to drop heated kisses along her neck. Grateful for the distraction from her discomfort, she sought additional diversions, running her hands up his arms to his shoulders. He had wonderful shoulders, broad and solid but without the heavier muscles she associated with her unpleasant past. She laced her arms around his neck, stroking the nape, and with a low groan he buried himself deeper inside her, his hungry mouth devouring hers. Gradually the worst of the tension left her body, and as she relaxed the pain dissipated, leaving behind a sensation of fullness and friction that was not at all unpleasant.

They continued to kiss, alternating between teasing nibbles and deep, thorough exploration of each other’s mouths, and Elizabeth moaned as a sweet ache of pleasure began to build inside her. William adopted a slow, intoxicating rhythm, his groans more frequent as she involuntarily rocked her hips in time with his thrusts. She sensed from the tension in his body that he was struggling to restrain himself for her sake, and she wondered if it was possible for her heart to explode with love. She lifted her head to kiss his neck. He groaned again and began to thrust harder, the sharp rasp of his breathing taking on a desperate urgency.

“I love you, William,” she whispered, tears springing to her eyes as she said the heartfelt words. “I love you so much.”

“Oh, God. Lizzy, I—” He threw back his head, his eyes squeezed shut, and then with a fierce groan he pressed deep inside of her. His hips moved spasmodically, his panting breaths filling the silence until his trembling arms could no longer support him. He buried his head against her neck, his chest heaving.

She cradled him in her arms, massaging his sweat-dampened back with one hand while the other tenderly stroked his hair. My first lover. She tightened her arms around him, relishing the warmth and strength of his body covering hers.

Wait a minute. He’s on top of me, and … I’m okay.

He apparently recognized his position at almost the same moment and withdrew from her quickly, rolling to one side. “Lizzy, I’m sorry. I was so … I couldn’t think, and I just wanted … Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She reached for him. “So why don’t you come back here and let me hold you?”

“Absolutely.” He turned his back for a moment, fumbling briefly with a tissue, and then drew her into his arms, holding her close. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Good. Because … cara, I …” He shook his head with a rueful smile. “I don’t have the words to tell you how I feel. I’d need to get up and play something for you, but I don’t have enough energy right now.”

She reached for the lamp on the night table and switched it off. In the darkness, she slid back into his arms. “You can play for me later. Right now, just hold me.”

They floated together in a sea of contentment, exchanging soft kisses, tender caresses, and whispered words of love. She sensed that nothing in their relationship, perhaps nothing in her life, would ever be the same.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured.

“I told you, no harm done. For some reason it didn’t scare me this time.”

“I meant, I’m sorry things went as fast as they did.”

She kissed him. “No reason to apologize. I enjoyed it.” The sweet pleasure she had experienced had left her eager to try again, and soon.

His tone was still repentant. “I’ve wanted you for so long, and then when you said you loved me …” He sighed. “It overwhelmed me.”

“I’ve been well taken care of tonight by my wonderful guy.”

His lips slid along her throat. “Some day you’re going to sing that for me.”

“No, I’m not, but I could pop in the DVD right now if you want to hear the song.”

His sleepy chuckle rumbled in her ear. “I’ll pass.”

They lapsed into silence, and Elizabeth’s eyes drifted shut.

His husky voice pulled her back from the edge of sleep. “Since you didn’t get scared when I was lying on top of you, does this mean you’re done with the flashbacks for good?”

“I doubt it. They come and go. But I think they’ll be less frequent now, and eventually they’ll go away. And, you know, tonight there was something special in my favor.”

“What?”

She pressed a warm kiss to his lips. “I have everything I need right here, because you’re with me. If a certain creep from my college days had tried to crash the party, we’d have kicked him to the curb together.”

“I love you, Lizzy,” he mumbled thickly. No more than a minute later he was breathing in the gentle rhythm of sleep.

“I love you too,” she whispered, closing her eyes.