William frowned at the white damask napkin in his lap, now festooned with orange streaks of Old Bay seasoning, and made a mental note to have Mrs. Hill purchase a new set of table linens for his aunt. “In my past experience, eating crab wasn’t such a production … or such a mess.”

“You’re probably used to king crab legs,” Elizabeth said, cracking open a crab claw. “And maybe even dungeness crab, from living out here for a while. But Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are so delicious that it’s worth the mess. At least, I think so. I get the feeling you’re not convinced.”

William understood now why Elizabeth’s tales of eating crabs with the Gardiners involved outdoor seating and makeshift tablecloths of heavy brown paper. Mrs. Hill had set an elegant table, his aunt’s silver flatware gleaming in the light of the tapers rising from a pair of ornate candlesticks. In this rarefied setting, the plate of discarded crab shells was as welcome as a rusty barge in the midst of a yacht club regatta.

The mess wasn’t the only problem. William wasn’t accustomed to a meal that had to be beaten into submission—literally, as evidenced by the small wooden mallet leaning against his plate in an attitude of exhaustion. His attempts to liberate the crabmeat from its unyielding prison had been unsuccessful until Elizabeth, with an air of affectionate amusement, had offered some pointers. His luck had improved after that, but the process continued to be arduous.

“I guess this wasn’t the best choice for an elegant, romantic dinner,” he remarked.

“Elegant, maybe not. But I can’t imagine anything more romantic than all the trouble you’ve gone to, just for me.”

“You’re worth it.” He nearly reached out to touch her, but then he remembered his Old Bay-infested hands.

“At least your suit is safe from the ravages of the meal. I know you’re relieved about that.”

He grinned at her gentle tease. They were casually attired now, William in a silk robe and Elizabeth in her satin nightshirt, lending their meal a piquant air of domesticity.

“But I’m disappointed about one thing,” she continued. “After all the time I spent shopping for the perfect dress, I had it on for, what, an hour at most?”

“Bring it to New York when you come for Thanksgiving, and we’ll take it out to dinner some night.”

“Add dancing afterwards, and I’m sure the dress would be pleased to accept.”

“Then your dress has a date. Are you ready for dessert?” He rose to his feet.

“I’ll help you,” she said, collecting their plates. “I need to wash my hands anyway.”

Elizabeth handled rudimentary cleanup while William removed two goblets from the refrigerator, each garnished with a purple edible orchid. “Your dessert, ma’am” he announced, displaying his wares with a flourish.

“Oh, good! I was hoping for chocolate mousse. It looks delicious.”

“It is. Mrs. Hill let me try some earlier.”

“Aha. So you make a habit of hanging around the kitchen mooching, do you?”

He adopted an expression of injured dignity. “Certainly not. I had to make sure the mousse was good enough for you.”

“My brave knight. Always with the chivalry, regardless of the sacrifice involved.”

“Of course, my lady.” He retrieved two spoons from a drawer. “By the way, this is Mrs. Reynolds’s recipe, never before shared with anyone. She made Mrs. Hill promise that the secret would go with her to her grave. I believe a blood oath was involved.”

Elizabeth giggled. “I had no idea of the high-level negotiations a dinner like this demands. I sound like a broken record, but it was so sweet of you to do all of this. I can’t imagine how much work this was for you.”

“I didn’t mind,” he said softly. “I like doing things for you.”

They returned to the dining room. With solemn ceremony, William retrieved a tiny candle and a pack of matches from the pocket of his robe, slipped the candle into the center of Elizabeth’s mousse, and lit it.

She glanced up at him, eyebrows raised in anticipation. “Aren’t you going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Spoilsport.” She paused for a minute, fixing a watchful gaze on him. At last she sighed, wearing an exaggerated pout. “I can’t believe you’re going to make me wait till tomorrow night to be sung to.”

He shook his head and folded his arms across his chest, hiding his amusement behind a smug expression. “You’re not going to guilt me into singing.”

“Oh, I think you’re wrong about that.” She stared back at him, hands on her hips.

Silence fell in the dining room as they eyed each other, until at last they both began to chuckle. “There’s nothing worse than a standoff between two pig-headed people,” Elizabeth said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Oh, don’t even try to deny it. Or, better yet, prove you’re not stubborn by singing for me.”

“I don’t need to prove anything to anyone,” he said in as lofty a tone as he could manage. He pulled out her chair, and then seated himself.

“Okay, okay, you win … for now.” Elizabeth blew out the tiny flame. “The candle was going to start melting all over the mousse soon anyway.”

“In any case, it’s not your birthday yet, technically speaking,” William said, waving his spoon to emphasize his point.

“So after midnight you’ll sing for me?”

“I didn’t say that.”

She shook her head, grinning, and turned her attention to her dessert. Once her goblet was empty she rose from the table and plopped onto his lap, kissing him with enthusiasm. “Thank you. Dinner was wonderful from start to finish.”

“You’re welcome.” He shifted her slightly in his arms, tightening his hold on her, and they kissed again. “I must say, though, my favorite part was our … intermission.”

“Mmm.” Her lips meandered across his neck and he closed his eyes, groaning softly as she lavished attention on a sensitive spot near his ear. Zero to aroused in two seconds; that must be some sort of record. His hands slid under the hem of her nightshirt and began to wander.

She drew back and nipped his nose, startling him. “When do I get my other birthday present? I’m dying to know what it is.”

There’s something else I’d rather give you right now. But he was anxious to see her wearing his gift, so he elbowed his desire aside and helped her up off his lap. “It’s in the bedroom. Shall we?”

“Good idea, as soon as we’ve taken care of the dishes.”

He followed her to the kitchen and took a half-hearted stab at helping to load the dishwasher. It was fruitless to argue that Mrs. Hill would handle the cleanup tomorrow. He had lost that battle with Elizabeth early in his tenure at the penthouse.

“Would you like coffee or tea, or maybe a cognac?” he asked.

“Did we finish the wine? It was so good, I’d love to have some more.”

He poured their drinks and they took them to the bedroom. She hopped onto the bed, sipping her wine while he re-lit the candles and extinguished the bedside lamp. Then he retrieved a small jeweler’s box from his dresser and joined her on the bed.

She set her wine glass on the night table and opened the box, drawing a breath. “Oh, William, it’s beautiful!”

William exhaled loudly, unaware till that moment that he had been holding his breath in anticipation. “Then you like it?”

“I love it.” It was a pendant, an emerald surrounded by small diamonds, suspended from a platinum chain. Elizabeth lifted it from the box, cradling it in her hand.

“Your eyes have always made me think of emeralds, so I wanted to give you one, but nothing seemed right. Then Sonya suggested I look at antique jewelry, and I found this in a shop a few blocks from here.”

“It’s perfect. Sweet and a bit old-fashioned … like you.” She leaned forward and twined her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she whispered, her lips warm against his.

“Would you like to put it on now?”

“Definitely.”

She turned her back to him, holding out the ends of the chain. He fumbled with the tiny clasp while she gathered her hair out of the way. After he fastened the pendant, he pressed his lips to her neck.

She turned to face him, glancing down at the pendant. “It’s a bit dressy for my nightshirt, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, reaching for the buttons on her shirt, “because the nightshirt is coming off. I want to see you in the pendant and nothing else.”

“I take it we’re moving on to the next—what did you call it? Intermission?”

“That’s right.” He finished unbuttoning her shirt and spread it open, his eyes flaring at the sight of the brilliant emerald nestled in the valley between her breasts. “I know I’ve said it before, but you take my breath away,” he whispered, reaching out to touch the gem and then trailing his fingers over the soft flesh surrounding it.

Her hands were busy as well, untying his robe and sliding it off his shoulders. “You make me breathless too.” She placed both hands on his chest, exerting unexpected pressure, and he found himself flat on his back with Elizabeth leaning over him, the pendant and her eyes a trio of glittering jewels. “There’s one more thing I want for my birthday.”

The hungry glint in her eyes made it easy for William to consent. “I’m entirely at your mercy.”

“I want to memorize you, all of you.”

“Memorize me?”

She nodded, her fingers warm as they slid over his chest. “When you’re gone, I want to be able to conjure you up in perfect detail.”

He felt a stab of pain at the reminder of their imminent separation, but it was soon submerged beneath currents of sensual delight as her gentle exploration of his torso continued. Mesmerized by the love that shone in her eyes and poured from her fingertips, he relaxed against the pillows and allowed it to wash over him.

 

He was so beautiful, lying on the bed in nothing but his boxers, the lines of stress that often creased his face smoothed away. Elizabeth bent down to press a line of butterfly kisses to his neck, inhaling his scent as she trailed her fingers across his chest.

Her attention was drawn to a faint white scar. “How did you get this?” she asked, brushing it with her finger. “I’ve been meaning to ask about it, but whenever you’re shirtless, I get easily distracted.”

A frown line appeared on his forehead. “It’s from a while ago.”

“It looks like it. An old playground injury?”

When he finally responded his reluctance was palpable. “It’s from surgery.”

“Surgery?” Her eyes widened.

“My heart. Or more accurately, my aorta.”

“But I thought they fixed it through angioplasty, and you didn’t need surgery.” In any case, the scar looked too old to have been the result of his hospitalization in June.

“I had surgery years ago, when I first had the problem.”

“When you first …” She stared at him. “This summer wasn’t the first time you had heart problems?”

He sat up halfway, leaning on his elbows, and again he hesitated before he spoke. “No.”

Her first impulse was to pepper him with questions, but she forced herself to wait while he assembled his thoughts. Suddenly self-conscious about her state of undress, she reached for the fragile white sheet pooled at the foot of the bed and pulled it up to cover her.

At last his eyes met hers and he spoke in a deliberate tone. “I was born with a congenital heart defect, where the aorta is constricted.”

“That’s the same problem you had earlier this year.”

“Yes. Sometimes it recurs in adults. I suppose you could say that I outgrew the earlier repair.”

And if I hadn’t noticed the scar, would he ever have told me? “A congenital defect. So you had the surgery as a newborn?”

“The most severe cases are discovered and treated soon after birth, but I didn’t start having problems until after we moved to New York.”

“How old were you?”

“Not quite two. It took almost a year for the doctors to figure out what was wrong. Evidently it was a difficult year for all concerned.”

“What were your symptoms?”

“Headaches and leg cramps, and I became breathless and pale with minimal exertion. And I wasn’t gaining weight. I was painfully thin.”

She kissed his shoulder, touched by this poignant image. “Poor thing. And your poor parents, worrying about you while the doctors tried to diagnose the problem.”

A shadow flitted across his face. “It was difficult for Mamma. She’d left her family and friends behind in Italy, and she’d given up her career. Also, she and Gran got off to a rocky start.”

Elizabeth wasn’t surprised to hear that Rose hadn’t liked Anna; she had been an outsider. Like me. “What about your father?”

He shrugged and sat up, arranging the pillows behind him. “He was busy running the company.”

“But his only son was seriously ill.”

“He thought Mamma was coddling me, that the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong because there was nothing to find.”

“Once they said you needed surgery, he must have felt terrible.”

William didn’t respond. He rarely mentioned his father, and Elizabeth sensed that she was treading in a vulnerable area. She wanted to know more, but it seemed more important to pursue the question of his health. “You were about three when you had the operation?”

“It was just before my third birthday. It was a risky procedure in those days, and the prospect terrified my mother.”

“Of course it did. That poor woman, with nobody to lean on.”

“She and Gran bonded to some extent while I was in the hospital, but I’m sure it was a difficult time for her.”

“And you must have been so scared and confused.” Elizabeth took his hand and raised it to her lips. Her heart ached for the frightened, lonely woman and her frail son.

“I don’t really remember it, which I suppose is for the best.”

“Did the surgery go well?”

“There were some complications. I don’t know all the details, but I was in the hospital for two or three weeks, and I had a slow convalescence at home afterwards.”

“Which is why she was so protective of you later.” William’s occasional stories of his mother had painted a picture of a fierce guardian of her son’s welfare, sometimes to excess. Now Anna’s behavior made more sense.

“She never stopped worrying about me. In those days, heart patients weren’t encouraged to exercise the way they are today, but she carried things further than the doctors advised. She preferred that I stay indoors, either with her or with someone else from the household.”

“That must have been lonely for you.” She touched the scar gently and brought her hand to rest over his heart.

He wrapped her in his arms, drawing her against his body. “I suppose so, but it was the only life I knew. I don’t mean to make it sound like something out of Dickens. Most women in our circle handed their children over to nannies, but Mamma devoted herself to me. She told me stories and sang to me, and we played games together. She started teaching me to read during my convalescence, and books opened new worlds for me.”

“But you were only three.”

He shrugged. “I loved books and I wanted to learn.”

A ghost of a smile flashed across Elizabeth’s face at this offhand dismissal of his formidable intellect. “You started on the piano around that time too, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and soon it was my favorite pastime. Music let me take all sorts of journeys in my mind.”

“Things must have changed when you started school.”

“Not that much, except that I was out of the house during the day.”

“But you finally had a chance to make friends, with the boys in your class.”

“They didn’t have much use for a quiet, skinny kid who wasn’t allowed to play sports, and who had to go straight home every day after school.” She heard a hint of bitterness, despite his effort to sound matter-of-fact. “And later when I started missing school for recitals and piano competitions in other cities …” He shrugged. “I didn’t have much in common with them.”

She nestled closer to him, stroking his hair. “You’ve felt completely alone for most of your life, haven’t you?”

“I’m not alone anymore.” His eyes embraced her.

“What I don’t understand is, why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

“I’m not comfortable talking about my health. For one thing, I don’t want private details of my life becoming publicly known.”

“You thought I’d betray your confidence?” She drew away from him, indignation flaring inside her.

“That’s not what I meant. Of course I trust you, Lizzy.” He reached for her, but she eluded his grasp.

“Apparently not, or you wouldn’t have hidden this from me. Good thing I noticed the scar, or I might never have known about it.”

He sighed. “I didn’t want you to see me as weak and damaged.”

“You can’t possibly believe that I’d think less of you because of this.” She took his hand. “I hope you have more faith in me than that.”

His gaze rested on their entwined fingers. “Darcys are supposed to be strong. Weakness of any sort is unacceptable.”

“Says who? Your grandmother? What were you supposed to do, refuse to be born, since you weren’t flawless in every detail? Fling yourself out of your bassinet at the hospital? Besides, you’re not weak, and anybody who thinks you are doesn’t know the first thing about you.” She pressed her lips together in an angry line.

He reached for her, and this time she didn’t resist. “And you think my mother was over-protective?”

“I can’t help it. You’re my wonderful guy, and I won’t have anybody saying otherwise.”

“I should hire you as my press agent,” he teased.

“Ah, but are you prepared for me to tell them the shocking tale of the day you refused to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for your girlfriend?”

Chuckling, William kissed the tip of her nose and then covered her mouth with his. He rolled onto his back, taking her with him so that she lay on top of him. Elizabeth closed her eyes, absorbing the delicious sensation of his bare legs tangled with hers.

“Didn’t you say something about memorizing me?” he murmured, spreading kisses across her jaw.

“Mmm, yes, I did.”

“I hope that’s going to involve more than just looking.” His hands slipped under the waistband of her black satin panties, cupping her buttocks.

“Of course. The more actively a student is engaged in the learning process, the more the student will remember later.”

“Then we’re talking about hands-on learning, I hope?” His rakish grin made her laugh.

She extracted herself from his embrace, sitting beside him. “Precisely what I had in mind,” she murmured, stroking his chest in a slow circular massage.

“Consider me your personal learning laboratory.” He lay back, arms folded behind his head.

“And I can’t see any reason to restrict the experience to just touch and sight. Might as well use all five senses.” She leaned forward, burying her nose against his chest. “You smell wonderful, so warm and sexy.”

“So do you,” he mumbled. “But you’re not wearing your usual perfume tonight.”

“I had a lavender sugar body scrub at the spa.”

He arched an eyebrow. “They scrub your body with sugar? And this is considered a good thing?”

“It’s supposed to leave your skin soft and smooth.”

His hand skimmed her body, coming to rest on her hip. “I can vouch for that. You’re softer than the silk sheets.”

“I’m glad you approve, since I did it for you. Now, let’s see. We’ve covered sight, touch and smell. Next comes taste.” She kissed her way down his chest and flicked her tongue over his taut brown nipple.

He closed his eyes, a soft groan escaping his throat. “You’re welcome to taste anything you like, cara.”

And some day soon I’ll be bold enough to do exactly that. “That covers all the senses except for sound.”

He opened his eyes, giving her an exaggerated long-suffering look. “I hope that wasn’t another hint for me to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

She laughed softly. “No, I’ve given up on that. But maybe some of the touching and tasting will inspire you to make some noise.”

He reached up, drawing her down on top of him. “I think you can depend on that.”

 

It was requiring all of William’s restraint to lie passively on the bed while Elizabeth explored his body, and in truth he hadn’t managed complete passivity. Occasionally he had been compelled to capture a round breast in his hand when it brushed against his side, or to bury his hands in her hair as if to capture the auburn highlights shimmering there. She was a tantalizing vision, her smooth skin the color of honey in the warm glow of the candles, the emerald pendant—his gift—sparkling in its resting place near her heart.

Presently she sat by his feet, her hands sliding up his calves. “You have such nice legs,” she murmured, the husky note in her voice sending a wave of heat directly to his groin.

During her downward progress she had subjected him to an all-out sensual assault, her initial shyness melting away as her eyes, hands, and lips laid claim to him. The admiring gleam in her eyes and her occasional words of praise for his physique left no doubt of her enjoyment. Her soft hands had incited his lust as they stroked their way over his abdomen, but she had bypassed the swollen appendage that strained toward her in a frantic plea for attention.

Now she was moving in that direction again, and his every functioning brain cell was absorbed in charting her progress. Her hands skimmed past his knees, brushing his thighs with a feather-light touch that wrung a soft groan from him. He held his breath, every muscle growing rigid as her caresses drifted higher, and higher still … and then stopped.

“Lizzy, this is torture,” he gasped. “Please touch me. I can’t stand it anymore.”

“I am touching you.” Her eyes twinkled with mock innocence.

“You know what I mean.”

She leaned over to kiss him, and he inhaled her unfamiliar lavender scent. “It’s probably not midnight yet,” she whispered, her fingers tracing lazy circles over his thighs until William thought he’d go mad, “but since there’s no clock in here, we could pretend.”

“What?” The time of day was irrelevant. If she didn’t touch him soon he’d burst into flames, and nothing else mattered.

“If we pretend it’s after midnight, you could sing ‘Happy Birthday’ without compromising your principles. And if you did that, I’d have to find some way to show my gratitude.” The naughty arch of her eyebrow hinted at the form her gratitude would take.

“You can’t be serious.” He tried to sound indignant, but it was pointless to pretend. He’d sing like a canary in exchange for relief from his suffering.

Her teasing smile grew tender. “No, I’m not. It’s tempting, but that would be too cruel.”

His eyes locked on her hand as she reached out slowly, her fingers teasing him gently. Pleasure lanced through him and he gasped, his head falling back against the pillow. She was already learning how he liked to be touched, her increasingly skillful caresses threatening to shred his control and send him spinning into oblivion. But he gritted his teeth and marshaled his will power in pursuit of a more important goal.

Elizabeth had not yet reached a climax during their lovemaking, not even earlier that evening, though as always she had succumbed to his touch afterwards. The first time they had made love, he had performed with much enthusiasm but little finesse, though after his endless months of frustrated desire little else could have been expected. During their next two encounters, he had summoned iron self-control to delay his satisfaction, but still had not achieved the result he sought. To fail to please the person whose pleasure mattered most was mortifying. This time he was determined to help her reach the same astonishing peak of ecstasy he experienced with her … or die trying.

She anointed his chest with warm kisses, tenderness filtering through his passion when she pressed her lips to his scar. Her hands continued to explore, sending a new burst of heat surging through him, and he knew it was time to act. He covered her hands with his, stilling their motion, and tried to ignore the wild hammering of his heart. “You’d better stop that, before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“When you get me so worked up, I don’t give you the attention you need. I’m not going to let that happen again.”

“Again?”

“You know what I mean. We’ve made love three times, and so far you haven’t had an … ” The words died in his throat when he saw her face fall.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, reaching for the sheet and drawing it up over her body. “It’s me.”

“No, cara. I’m the one who hasn’t been able to give you what you need.”

“Nonsense. You’ve been wonderful. It’s me. I’ve heard that lots of women need … a little extra help, and I guess I’m one of them. Plus, I still seem to get a little tense each time, and I have to force myself to relax.”

He drew her head onto his shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I’m sure we could have done something about that.”

“It’s okay. I’m getting past it. And once I relax, everything is lovely.”

He ignored her thoughtful but transparent attempt to soothe his ego. “Lizzy, there are other ways—other positions, I mean—that might be more enjoyable for you. But when I made that suggestion last night you said no.”

“I was afraid my inexperience would interfere with your enjoyment.”

“What are you talking about?”

She sighed, inspecting her pink-lacquered fingernails. “I know you’ve been with a lot of women. Experienced women who don’t need you to stand on your head or think about baseball for hours. Women who don’t hide under the covers and ask you to fetch their clothes. I must seem inept in comparison to your other bed partners.”

William joined her under the covers and engulfed her in his arms. “We barely made it past the soup course before I dragged you off to bed. Does that strike you as the behavior of a man who finds you lacking in any way?”

She smiled up at him through her eyelashes. “Well, you have a point.”

“Good.” The rest wouldn’t be quite as easy to explain. “Now, as far as other women are concerned … ” He paused, unsure how to continue.

“You don’t need to justify your past. I mean, what woman wouldn’t want you? And of course you’ve wanted some of them. With all that opportunity, obviously you haven’t spent your nights at home with only a book to keep you warm.”

“I’ve done more of that than you seem to think.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “It’s true that there have been women in my life. But I’m not like Richard. I don’t pick women up in bars and I don’t have one-night stands.”

She nodded. “Of course not. That would be a little too undignified for you.”

“More than a little. And there’s something else. I’ve been thinking about it all day. I’ve had sex before, but until last night I had never made love. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s the truth.”

Her eyes softened and she nestled closer to him, kissing his neck. “For a guy who used to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, you’ve gotten pretty good at saying just the right thing.”

“They’re not just words. Making love to you is so much more …” He hesitated, unable to explain what was in his heart, so instead he kissed her forehead, her cheek, and finally her lips. “I’m the one who’s proven inept, not you. You touch me, and I turn into a randy teenager. But I’m determined to change that. Not just for you, but for me too, because I enjoy your enjoyment.”

“I know what you mean. I love it when it’s obvious that something I do to you feels good.”

He chuckled and kissed her again. “My problem is that everything you do to me feels good. So, so good.”

“Then I was right about the thinking-about-baseball business?”

“I tend to think about bad rehearsals and out-of-tune pianos,” he murmured in her ear, tightening his arms around her. “I should have been doing more of that last night.”

“Last night was perfect,” she said softly. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

They kissed, and William lost track of time as he relished the softness and warmth of her lips. With a gentle sigh that was almost a purr, Elizabeth molded her body against his, the delicious pressure of her curves renewing his desire.

She raised her head and smiled at him, a sultry light in her eyes that heated his blood. “And please understand, my ineptitude is just a temporary issue. I’m a fast learner, and I’m motivated. I intend to be very good at this before long.”

He couldn’t kiss her deeply enough, hold her close enough, or caress her body thoroughly enough to satisfy his craving for her. It was elemental, beyond logic or reason, and he surrendered to it. His groans pierced the silence in the shadowy bedroom as her hands sought out the sensitive spots she had discovered earlier, caressing each one into helpless surrender.

The minutes passed as they incited each other to ever greater arousal, the shared fever in their blood rising until William couldn’t wait any longer. He released her and rolled onto his back, reaching into the nightstand for a condom. Her eyes widened when he tore the packet open and pressed it into her hand. “Please,” he rasped, “put it on me.”

A tiny smile turned up the corners of her mouth as she extracted the condom from the packet and leaned over him. He held his breath as her hands slid slowly downward, her searing touch preceding the cooler sensation of the latex as it encased him. “I love you,” he whispered. “Make love to me, cara, please.”

He guided her into position above him, grasping her waist, and she lowered herself onto him slowly, engulfing him inch after agonizing inch. His body was a coiled spring of impatient desire, every instinct demanding that he arch upward to bury himself deep inside her, but he managed to lie still and let her set the pace. At last his patience was rewarded and he was fully, deliciously sheathed within her. She hovered above him, perfectly still, biting her lip as her eyes roved over his body.

“Are you okay?” he asked, brushing his fingers over her arms.

She nodded. “It’s just so …” With a tremulous smile, she shook her head and leaned down to kiss him. “I love you so much,” she whispered.

He wrapped her in his arms, his ravenous need submerged under a wave of love that nearly stole the breath from his lungs. Her lips moved down his neck, nibbling like an affectionate vampire, while his fingers tangled in the riot of curls that spilled onto his chest. Then she sat up partway and, her hands resting on his shoulders, began to circle her hips slowly. Pleasure radiated through him until he could no longer remain still.

Their gazes locked, her eyes glowing with love, and again he could barely breathe. He slid his hands over her rib cage, capturing her gently swaying breasts in his palms. When he brushed his thumbs over her nipples, she inhaled a shuddering breath. He watched, spellbound, as she squeezed her eyes shut and increased the pace of her rocking motion. Pleasure surged through his body, their moans mingling together in a perfect sensual harmony.

“Open your eyes, Lizzy.” He scarcely recognized the hoarse voice as his. “Look at me.”

She complied, and the loving communion of their gaze brought the unexpected sting of tears to his eyes. He pulled himself upright and wrapped her in his arms, nuzzling her breasts while she buried her hands in his hair, urging him on. When he raised his head, she captured his face in her hands and, with a soft, inarticulate cry, pressed her mouth eagerly to his. Then she pushed him gently onto his back, following him down and pressing hot kisses to his chest and neck as their hips continued to move in tandem. Every inch of his skin seemed to tingle and burn, and when her tongue brushed his nipple, he gasped, astonished by the jolt of pleasure that rocked him.

Their universe telescoped, collapsing inward until it would admit only the two of them in their candlelit haven, absorbed in a passionate union of bodies and souls. Their chests heaved, their hearts pounded, and their moans escalated in volume and pitch as together they found new heights of intimacy, the air around them electric with passion.

William wanted to remain forever suspended in the eye of this perfect storm, yet he also craved the explosion of pleasure that was already beginning to build, and that he would soon be helpless to delay. She seemed to feel it too, her eyes huge and almost wild as they locked with his. He was entirely in her thrall as she hovered above him, her face flushed. Then she gasped and threw her head back, her soft cry filling his ears. Joy burst through him, and as her convulsive movements subsided, his world shattered in a paroxysm of ecstasy unlike anything he had ever known. Later he would remember hearing a voice shout her name, a voice that must have been his, but now he could only cling to Elizabeth, her presence the only stable force in a whirling universe of sensation.

 

Elizabeth wasn’t sure how long she had been floating with William in a state of languorous contentment. She only knew that she had no desire to move, which was fortunate since she doubted she possessed the strength. The electricity of their lovemaking had drained her of energy, and she lay draped across William, enveloped in the comforting haven of his arms.

They had not spoken since collapsing together into a sated heap of intertwined limbs. After a time, she had roused herself sufficiently to draw lazy designs on his chest, pressing occasional kisses to the hollow at the base of his throat. His hands alternated between caressing her back and smoothing her tangled hair.

The night air felt cool against her damp skin, and she shivered. He drew the sheet up, tucking it carefully around her shoulders. “Are you okay?” he murmured.

“Mmmm.” She nestled even closer, luxuriating in the strength of his body. “You feel so good,” she said, her voice barely louder than a sigh.

“So do you.” His fingers traced a path down her side, resting on her hip.

They fell silent again, engrossed in their private thoughts. Elizabeth replayed their passionate encounter, her body tingling from the memory. She had been unprepared for such a powerful rush of sensation, so fierce it was almost painful. But more than that, the intimacy wrought by their shared ecstasy had left an indelible imprint on her heart.

Introspection wasn’t Elizabeth’s strong suit, nor was the eve of William’s departure the best time to reflect on the depth of her feelings for him. She cast about for a way to lighten her mood, finding it when the distant chime of the grandfather clock in the library announced the hour: twelve o’clock precisely.

“It’s after midnight now,” she said, fixing an expectant stare on William. “And that means it’s officially my birthday. So feel free to begin the serenade whenever you’re ready.”

His chuckle rumbled in his chest. “Why are you so determined to get me to sing?”

“Because I bet you’re good at it, and you’re just holding out on me.”

“If you really wanted to hear me sing, your blackmail scheme was your best chance. This may be a dangerous confession, but I would have sung almost anything if it meant feeling your hands on me.”

She nipped his ear lobe. “I was pretty sure of that, but it seemed like unsportsmanlike conduct.”

“I should say so. I was in a desperate state, though that’s nothing new. I’ve been that way for months.”

“I know. You’ve been waiting and waiting for us to make love. That’s part of what had me worried. It seemed like a sure recipe for disappointment. How could it possibly live up to all the hype?”

”I trust we’ve put those fears to rest?”

She smiled and nodded. Despite her nonexistent basis for comparison, Elizabeth knew that they had just experienced something remarkable.

They lapsed into silence again. Even the city below seemed to have been lulled into a state of peace, with only faint sounds of distant traffic filtering into the bedroom. She heard the library clock chime the quarter hour. Their time together was passing much too quickly.

“What did we say was next on our agenda?” she asked, propping her head up on one arm. “A movie, wasn’t it?” Her new DVD player still sat on top of the television across the room.

He stroked her hair, a sleepy grin warming his face. “You can watch one if you want, but I’ve already nodded off three or four times. I’m afraid there’s only one thing in my immediate future, and that’s falling asleep.”

His exhaustion was evident, so she decided not to press the issue. “I suppose you’re right.” She leaned over to blow out the candles on the nightstand nearest her, and then, noting that his eyes had already drifted shut, she clambered over him to do the same on the other side.

When she returned to the center of the bed, William wrapped her in his arms, kissing the tip of her nose and then her lips. “Good night, cara,” he mumbled, resting his head lightly against her shoulder. Almost instantly, his deep, regular breathing announced that he was asleep.

Elizabeth’s fingers sifted through his thick hair, memorizing its texture. He stirred in his sleep, mumbling something unintelligible and drawing her closer. She kissed his forehead and stared into the darkness, listening to the library clock chime at regular intervals, the time of his departure growing ever nearer. At last, deep into the night, she slept.

 

Elizabeth opened her eyes, awakened by a tickling sensation behind her ear accompanied by a low voice that seemed to be singing. She focused her attention and identified the source of both stimuli: it was William, leaning over her and crooning softly in her ear. “Happy birthday, dear Lizzy, happy birthday to you.”

He ran his lips along her throat, and she snuggled back against him with a drowsy laugh. “I only heard the end of it; you have to sing it again.”

“Not a chance. That was my debut performance and my swan song, rolled into one.”

She wriggled from his grasp and rolled over to face him. It surprised her to find him wearing his robe, his hair combed and his face clean-shaven. “Well, anyway, I finally got my song. Thank you, dear sir.”

“You’re welcome, madam. And in honor of this special day, I have one final gift for you.”

She sat up partway, clutching the sheet to her chest. “Another one? I’m impressed.”

He inclined his head toward the dresser, and she saw a small tray with coffee service. “I’m fixing you breakfast in bed. I just brought you coffee for now, because I wanted to make sure you were awake before I did the rest.”

“You’re fixing me breakfast?” She had never expected this. “You really are a wonderful guy.”

Despite his self-deprecating shrug, she could see how pleased he was with her praise. “It’s just going to be juice and bagels. Oh, and Mrs. Hill left some apple cinnamon muffins, too.”

“Juice, bagels, and muffins sounds perfect.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “You know, if word of this gets out, your female fans won’t be satisfied with lining up outside your dressing room after concerts. They’ll start storming the stage and tossing you their room keys.”

She thought she saw a faint blush creeping up to his face. “Do you want your coffee now?” he asked as he rose from the bed.

“No, thanks. I’m going to wait a few minutes.”

He nodded. “Then I’ll be right back with breakfast.”

As soon as William was gone, Elizabeth hopped out of bed and raced into the bathroom, grateful for the opportunity to freshen up. She drew the sheer curtains aside and looked out the window. The sky was a pale gray, a steady drizzle dampening the sidewalks below. A perfect morning to lounge around in bed for hours. Too bad we can’t do that.

By the time he returned with the breakfast tray, she was sitting up in bed in her nightshirt, her hair brushed into a semblance of order, a coffee cup in her hand. He set the tray on the nightstand, poured himself some coffee, and joined her on the bed.

“And the tray is even decorated,” she remarked. “I really am impressed.” A single red rose in a bud vase adorned the tray. She leaned over to kiss him. “Thank you. This was a lovely surprise.”

“I have to admit, it was Sonya’s idea. I talked to her yesterday, and she said if you were staying over I should treat you to breakfast in bed on your birthday.” He leaned back against the headboard and handed her a glass of juice.

“Well, she was right. And you’re not worried about sullying the silk sheets with crumbs or, worse yet, a coffee spill?”

He shrugged, smiling. “You’re worth the risk.”

“Wow, coming from Mr. Clean, that’s one of the sweetest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

They ate their breakfast, chatting about inconsequential things. Elizabeth labored to keep the conversation light, not ready to contemplate his impending departure. “What gave you this burst of energy so early in the morning?”

“I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was tempted to wake you up, but I’d already done that once.” He smiled, stroking her cheek. “And thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“So did I,” she purred, snuggling against him. She had awakened some time before dawn to find him spooned behind her, flagrantly aroused, his hands expertly awakening her desire as they slid over her body. They had made love, a leisurely experience far different from the passionate encounter earlier that night, yet one that had bathed Elizabeth in sensual delight.

He set his coffee cup on the nightstand and wrapped her in his arms, and they fell silent. She had opened the drapes earlier, affording a view of rivulets of rainwater streaming down the windows. Her grandmother had told her once that raindrops were heaven’s tears, and this morning it was an appropriate analogy.

“I don’t want to leave you.” His voice pulled her out of her reverie.

She answered him with a kiss. William lowered her to lie on the bed, his mouth still locked on hers.

When at last he lifted his head, his words astonished her. “Come with me to New York, Lizzy.”

His impulsive suggestion appealed to her sense of adventure, but there were practical matters to consider. “You know I can’t just leave town suddenly, any more than you can cancel your recital at the last minute and stay here with me.”

“Yes, you can, cara,” he whispered in her ear. “I need you.” His breath was hot as he covered her neck with slow kisses that soon had her squirming. “I’ve got a big, soft bed at home, and a bathtub built for two. We’ll make love until we’re both too weak to move.”

Then his lips were on hers again, hot and hungry, demanding unconditional surrender. It was impossible to say yes, yet she was finding it just as unthinkable to say no. She saw a vision of William rising from the oversized tub, a thousand water droplets glistening on the masculine form she had explored so thoroughly last night. She saw him striding across the bathroom with the grace of a panther, his eyes dark with passion as he approached her, and—

Stop it! You know you can’t do this, no matter how delicious it sounds. We have to get used to saying goodbye if we’re going to make this work.

Summoning her better judgment, she pulled her lips away from his. “I love the idea of you, the bed, and the tub. But right now I have exams to give and students getting ready for auditions who are counting on my help.”

“Cancel your classes,” he whispered, unfastening the top buttons of her nightshirt and slipping his hands inside. “Your students won’t mind.”

There was some truth in that statement, and the skillful fingers caressing her didn’t make it easy to be logical, but she persisted. “And what would your grandmother think if I just showed up unexpectedly? She doesn’t strike me as the sort who would welcome an impromptu houseguest, especially not one you whisked off to your bedroom. I can just hear it. ‘Sorry, Gran, but I can’t talk right now. Elizabeth and I are going upstairs to cavort in my bathtub.’”

His hands stilled their motion and he grimaced, but he didn’t comment.

She shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry to be so blunt, but from what I hear your grandmother already has doubts about me. We don’t need to make matters worse.”

He rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling, and exhaled a loud sigh.

“And I have a performance review scheduled with Catherine de Bourgh on Friday morning. She’d probably fire me for canceling all those classes. But even if she didn’t, how would I explain canceling my meeting with her? I doubt she’d be sympathetic to the idea that you need me in your bed in New York.”

“Not just in my bed,” he said softly. “But I see your point. And as for Gran …” He sighed again. “You’re right about that too.”

“Besides, it would be pretty rude to walk out on my birthday party tonight, even though I’ll probably just spend the whole evening moping because I’m missing you.”

“I guarantee that’s what I’ll be doing.” He turned on his side, pulling Elizabeth toward him. “I doubt I’ll get any sleep the entire week. I’m already addicted to having you here with me.”

“I know. I was thinking about that last night, before I went to sleep. But with all your traveling, this is the way it’s going to be, so we’d better get used to it.”

“I don’t want to get used to it. But I know something else I want to do.” He finished unbuttoning her nightshirt.

“Do we have time?” Her rehearsal started at 9:00, and he needed to leave for the airport not long thereafter.

He spread her nightshirt open and leaned over her, his eyes glittering with hunger. Then he lowered his head to press hot kisses to her neck, his mouth drifting lower an inch at a time. “Last night you got your chance to memorize me,” he murmured. “This morning, it’s my turn.”

She was about to ask what time it was when his hands found a vulnerable spot. A shaft of pure electricity flashed through her, a powerful form of indoor lightning contributing to the rainy-day atmosphere. “Okay,” she gasped, lying back on the bed in an attitude of surrender, “we’ll make time.”

 

William pressed his lips to Elizabeth’s forehead. “I’m going to tell the driver to go around the block. I can’t let you go, not yet.”

She glanced at her watch. She was already half an hour late for rehearsal, the result of William’s thorough and enthusiastic “memorization” of her body. Apologies and explanations would be necessary even without additional delays, but she didn’t care.

Unfortunately it was too late to divert the limo from its path; it was pulling into the conservatory parking lot. William lowered the glass separating them from the driver. “Give us a few minutes,” he said. Then he raised the glass and cupped Elizabeth’s face in his hands

“Are you sure you can’t come to New York with me?” His deep brown eyes pleaded with her.

“I wish I could, but we’ve already discussed this.”

“I know. But I …” His voice trailed off as he lowered his head to hers, and they clung to each other, kissing repeatedly. When at last they drew apart, Elizabeth blinked back her tears, determined not to cry.

“I should go,” she said, smoothing his hair. “Are you sure you have time to take care of my stuff?”

“Absolutely.”

He had offered to deliver her overnight bag and her birthday gifts to the condo on his way to the airport. One gift, though, would stay with her. She fingered the pendant, which sparkled around her neck. “I’ll wear this every day.”

“Good. I hope it reminds you that my heart is yours.”

She lost the battle with her tears as one spilled down her cheek. “Call me when you get to New York.”

“I will.” His dark-eyed gaze locked on her. “Ti adoro, cara.” His mouth descended to hers, and she welcomed his fervent kiss.