William noted that the limo driver was struggling to keep up with him, probably due in part to the man’s short stature. He felt a pang as Elizabeth’s voice echoed in his head, “Slow down. We don’t all have your ten-foot-long legs, you know.” But they were running late, so he maintained his brisk pace down the condo building’s narrow hallway, his hands filled with Elizabeth’s birthday gifts. Charles’s flight was due to land in an hour, and there would be little enough time to talk even without delays.

Absorbed in thoughts of Elizabeth, he nearly passed her door and had to halt abruptly. The unfortunate driver stopped too late, the large cardboard box in his hands colliding with William from behind. William barely heard the driver’s apology, his attention seized by voices on the other side of the door.

“You’re seeing Charles Bingley again today? So there’s still a chance! You may be able to get him after all. Isn’t that wonderful, Ruth?” Although William had seen Mrs. Bennet only once since the rehearsal dinner, her voice was unforgettable, possessing all the auditory charm of fingernails on a chalkboard.

Ruth, whoever she was, must have nodded instead of speaking, because the next voice William heard was Jane’s.

“Charles and I are friends, Mom. Anything else is in the past.”

“Nonsense. If you made him love you once, you can do it again. Where is he going to find anyone sweeter or more beautiful than you? Just think of it—Jane Bingley! Doesn’t it sound wonderful?”

“Oh, my, yes, it certainly does.” William didn’t recognize the flute-like voice.

“If only his father hadn’t ruined everything by trying to force you to sign those horrid papers! You could be living in that gorgeous Victorian house, with a maid and a fancy car and a closet full of beautiful clothes, and plenty of money to do whatever you want. But maybe it’s not too late. When you see him today, wear something that shows off your figure. And be sure to laugh at his jokes, even the ones that aren’t funny. And—oh, heavens, I don’t need to tell you what to do. Just remind him why he fell in love with you in the first place.”

William strained to hear Jane’s response, but voices echoing from down the hall interfered. He saw himself through the limo driver’s eyes, skulking outside the door eavesdropping. In a hasty gesture he stabbed at the doorbell. Fortunately, Jane answered the door almost immediately.

“William, come in. Lizzy told me you’d be stopping by.”

“William Darcy! What a surprise. And what beautiful flowers!” Mrs. Bennet nodded at the crystal vase of red roses in his hands. “Lizzy’s not here. She’s at some silly rehearsal.”

Jane gestured toward a woman hovering behind Mrs. Bennet like a small, fidgety shadow. “Aunt Ruth, I’m sure you remember William Darcy. He was at the rehearsal dinner. William, you remember my aunt, Ruth Phillips.”

“Of course.” William acknowledged her stammered greeting with a distracted nod. He vaguely recalled her trailing along behind Mrs. Bennet at the rehearsal dinner. And gossiping about me … and about Charles’s money.

“I was just asking Andrew the other day at breakfast, ‘How long has it been since we saw William?’” Mrs. Bennet planted her hands on her hips, shaking her head. “Not that he answered my question—he just kept his nose buried in his newspaper, even though I asked him at least three times. I’m always telling him to get his ears checked, but he says his hearing is fine.”

William pressed his lips together to stifle a smirk, leaving Jane to step into the breach. “Mom, you saw William last month when you and Dad came up to the city for dinner, remember?”

“Oh, yes, for Andrew’s birthday. That was a while ago.” Mrs. Bennet took a step toward William with a proprietary air that raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

The Bennets had stopped by unexpectedly to visit Jane and Elizabeth after dinner that evening, and William had been there as well. Mrs. Bennet’s shocked expression and her stammering attempts at speech—evidence that Elizabeth had concealed her involvement with William from her mother—had soon given way to an overly familiar manner that had pushed William into disgusted silence.

Mrs. Bennet was still talking. “I’m always telling Lizzy she should bring you down for a visit. She just says she’s too busy, or that you are. But she’s been keeping me up to date on all the things you and she have been doing together.”

I doubt that. “Jane, I’m pressed for time, and—”

Mrs. Bennet stepped toward him again, her loud voice filling the room and escaping into the hall, something William wanted to do as well. “William, we’re so glad that you and Lizzy hit it off so well. In fact, I was just speaking to Lydia about it the other night. You remember Lydia, of course—my youngest, and she’s going to be a star some day! She just got a part in a crowd scene in the new movie starring … who did she say it was? Oh, dear, I can’t remember, but he’s such a hunk! Lydia’s going to try to meet him on the set, maybe get to know him better … what was his name? Well, it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I was on the phone with Lydia—she calls me every week, collect, of course, because rent is so expensive in LA, but I don’t mind because she always has exciting news. You know that actor who’s been married so often that everybody lost count? I can’t remember his name either—heavens, I’m forgetful today! Well, his wife, of course I mean the wife he has now, she’s about 20 years younger than him, and she found him in bed with the co-star of his new movie. She’s at least 30 years younger, and now they’re both pregnant, and—”

“William has a flight to catch, Mom,” Jane said gently. “I don’t think he has time for a long chat.”

“A flight? You’re leaving Lizzy? On her birthday? Why?”

“I have business in New York.” He intentionally allowed his tone to communicate the additional message, Not that it’s any of your business. He wouldn’t have tolerated her pointless babbling at all if not for the residual effects of his blissful night with Elizabeth. A few more minutes with Mrs. Bennet, though, and he’d be ready to jump out the living room window.

“New York? Weren’t you just there a few weeks ago? What’s wrong with young men these days? Always flying around the country, never staying in one place. Charles Bingley keeps popping back and forth between here and LA as if he were a ping pong ball, and with you it’s New York.”

William’s chin jutted out. “My family lives there, and I have business to handle as well.”

“I thought you could do business anywhere these days, what with the Internet and all. And your family could come here for a visit. I’m sure they’d love San Francisco. We have everything New York has, you know, but with nicer weather.”

“Remember, Mom, William is a concert pianist.” Jane gave him a harried smile as she took the vase from his hands. “His job requires him to travel.” She set the vase on the dining table. “The flowers are beautiful. I understand there were roses everywhere last night. Lizzy said it was a lovely evening.”

“It was,” he said softly, placing Elizabeth’s Philadelphia Story DVD on the table beside the vase. Then he handed Jane a package wrapped in silver paper with a white ribbon. “Could you please give her this at dinner tonight? And this too.” It was a single red rosebud wrapped in green tissue. “There’s a note inside the wrapping.”

“I love the way you’re showering her with roses.”

“I want her to know I’m thinking of her tonight, even though I can’t be there.”

Mrs. Bennet took the rose from Jane and sniffed it. William half expected her to dig out the card and read it aloud. “You certainly treat Lizzy well. But, of course, she’s a remarkable girl, so pretty and lively and talented. I’m sure you know that by now.”

“Yes, I do,” William answered in a cool tone, annoyed that Mrs. Bennet wasn’t similarly effusive in Elizabeth’s presence. He took the box containing the DVD player from the limo driver, who waited in the hallway.

“We’re both going to enjoy this,” Jane said as he carried the box to the living room.

“Another birthday present? My goodness, Mr. Darcy, you’re very generous.” Out of the corner of his eye, William saw Mrs. Bennet turn to Mrs. Phillips, giving her a knowing wink that the other woman acknowledged with a nod.

“You gave her a beautiful necklace too, I understand.” Jane smiled at William. “I can’t wait to see it.”

“Jewelry too? How lovely! What does the necklace look like?” Mrs. Bennet’s eyes gleamed, and William could almost hear the adding machine in her brain whirring as she computed the total value of her daughter’s birthday gifts.

William drew Jane to the door and gestured at Elizabeth’s overnight bag, which sat by the limo driver’s feet in the hallway. She nodded, and then turned to Mrs. Bennet. “Mom, you wanted to fill a thermos with coffee to take with you, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and then we have to get going. Come and help me, Ruth.” Mrs. Bennet bustled into the kitchen with Mrs. Phillips trailing at her heels.

Jane collected the overnight bag and slipped it into the hall closet. “Thank you for being discreet about this, William. Mom probably won’t question why you had to deliver the gifts, but the overnight bag would be different. It might not bother Mom to know where Lizzy spent last night, but …”

“But it would embarrass Lizzy if your mother ever mentioned it.”

Jane nodded. “I’m glad you understand. Lizzy called me this morning to let me know you’d be stopping by, and she told me what a wonderful time she had last night. I understand the dinner menu was a great success.”

“I think it was, as long as you don’t count the mess from the crab shells.” He glanced at his watch. “I should be going; I’m running behind schedule.”

“I understand. Are you and Charles still planning to meet at the airport?”

“Yes, though we won’t have much time.”

“Then I won’t keep you. Thanks so much for bringing Lizzy’s things, and I hope you have a good trip.”

“You’re leaving, William?” Mrs. Bennet poked her head out of the kitchen, leading William to wonder how much of the conversation she had overheard. “Ruth and I have to be on our way too. We’re going to Lake Tahoe for a few days.”

Their destination surprised William. Mrs. Bennet didn’t seem like the outdoorsy type. “Goodbye, Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips. Have a good trip. The scenery up there is beautiful.”

“The scenery?” Mrs. Bennet’s shrill laugh rang out. “Who cares about that? We’ll be too busy at the slot machines.”

“I see. Best of luck to you. Goodbye, Jane.” He turned away, shaking his head at his obtuseness. Of course Mrs. Bennet’s sole interest in Lake Tahoe would be the casinos.

William’s abrupt departure startled both the driver, who trotted along in his wake, and Mrs. Bennet, who leaned out the door, calling after him, “Goodbye, William. Have Lizzy bring you for a visit some time soon. Maybe at Christmas when Lydia’s home.”

That’s just what I need.

 

William arrived at the gate a few minutes behind schedule, but ahead of Charles’s flight—according to the monitors, it was expected to arrive half an hour late. Shaking his head, he found a seat in a sparsely occupied section of the waiting area and pulled his current book, a biography of Hirohito, from his briefcase.

He was soon immersed in an account of the political situation in Japan in the pre-war years, so much so that he didn’t notice a pair of long legs wearing spike-heeled shoes enter his field of vision until they stopped directly in front of him. He glanced up and found the rest of Caroline Bingley attached.

“William, dear. It’s been ages.”

It had, much to his relief. Following an initial barrage of phone calls which he had ignored, he hadn’t heard from her during his time in San Francisco. He set his book on an empty chair and rose to his feet with some trepidation. “Hello, Caroline. I didn’t know you were meeting Charles’s flight.” If she proved true to form, he would soon be fending off a suffocating embrace.

She leaned forward to kiss his cheek, but attempted no other intimacies. “It’s good to see you,” she said with a friendly smile that might even have been genuine.

William was prepared to handle Caroline in full manipulative mode, but this low-key version baffled him. They seated themselves and he struggled to find a safe topic of conversation. “I understand you’ve been spending most of your time in LA recently.”

“Yes. Daddy hasn’t been well, so I’ve been back and forth between here and LA for several weeks helping out at headquarters. I would have stayed in touch, but apparently you switched cell phone companies and I don’t have your new number.”

Thank God. “I rarely give it out. It’s really just for my family, and for Sonya.”

“I asked Charles for the number, but he wouldn’t give it to me.”

And again I say, thank God. “I’m sure you can understand that Charles—”

“I know. He’s a close friend of yours. I suppose Elizabeth Bennet has the number too.” Her patrician voice was flavored with a drop or two of venom.

“Yes, she does.” William clenched his jaw, though he had already concluded that this new, rational Caroline must be a mirage.

“Oh, don’t grind your teeth, darling. I know you two are an item. I’ve heard all about it from Charles, and from dear Jane too.” She fiddled with a large ruby ring on her left hand. “I hope you’re happy together.”

“We are.”

Caroline made a show of scanning the boarding area. “Where is she?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, since you’re so close, surely she came to the airport with you to see you off on your trip.”

William inspected the buttons on the sleeve of his jacket, avoiding her sharp-eyed stare. “She had a rehearsal this morning.”

“And that mattered more than saying goodbye to you.” After a pause during which her matter-of-fact remark seemed to hover over their heads, she opened her purse and pulled out her cell phone. “Excuse me. I need to make a quick call.”

William wanted to rebut Caroline’s implied criticism of Elizabeth, but he couldn’t. She had stumbled onto a small abrasion on William’s heart. In the aftermath of Elizabeth’s refusal to join him in New York—a refusal he understood, but that disappointed him all the same—he had hoped that she’d accompany him as far as the airport. But she hadn’t, and he had been unwilling to risk another rejection by raising the question himself.

Caroline spoke into the phone, her voice smothered in syrup. “Darling! I’m so glad I caught you …. Oh, I didn’t mean to interrupt your golf game …. You’re so sweet to say that. I was just thinking about you …. Yes, next weekend. I can’t wait …. Why, you naughty, naughty boy!”

William opened his book and tried to ignore the cloying banter assaulting his ears, though he suspected that her performance was largely for his benefit. At last she said goodbye and dropped the phone into her purse, wearing a smile of feline satisfaction. “What a wonderful man,” she murmured softly. “I suppose you overheard.”

“It was difficult to avoid overhearing, but I suppose you intended it that way.”

“A fine accusation to make, when I’m so happy,” Caroline said, pouting. “Really, darling, I couldn’t wait forever for you, and there are plenty of attractive, single sharks in the tank. Bruce is handsome, charming, and very sexy.”

“And wealthy, I’m sure.”

She raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “What’s wrong with that? We don’t all choose to consort with those who are beneath us.”

William glared at her. “If you’re referring to Elizabeth, she isn’t beneath me.”

“Then how odd that you would have immediately thought of her. Although I can understand why you did.”

“Caroline, I won’t have you saying malicious things about her.”

“Now, now, don’t get so upset,” she replied in an unctuous tone, patting his arm. “I’m sure she’s a lovely girl, once you get past her rather … combative exterior. It’s not her fault she has such an atrocious family.”

With impressive precision, Caroline had touched another nerve. William couldn’t think of anything to say, so he simply stared down the concourse, pretending to study the sea of anonymous faces streaming toward him.

“Seriously, darling, I’m sure this has been a lovely vacation from reality, and I’m sure Elizabeth has seen to your various needs, shall we say, quite ably. But I know you’re too sensible to deceive yourself into believing that it means anything more.”

“You don’t know anything about my relationship with Elizabeth.”

“But I know you. You’re devoted to your family and to preserving its legacy. And I know your grandmother wants more for you than a common schoolteacher with a dreadful mother and a gaggle of equally dreadful sisters. Jane is a dear girl, but the others—” Caroline shuddered.

William rose to his feet. “I’m not discussing this with you. Excuse me. I’m going to sit over there until Charles arrives.”

Caroline jumped up and grabbed his arm. “Why are you being so defensive? You know I’m right. In fact, you gave Charles the same advice last May. You know perfectly well that your grandmother would be just as disgusted by the Bennets as my father was, and you can’t keep her from meeting them forever.”

“My grandmother wants me to be happy.” William yanked his arm out of Caroline’s grasp. “And in any case, this is none of your concern.”

“I know you don’t have romantic feelings for me. You made that abundantly clear at Rosings last August. And even if you did, I have Bruce in my life now. But you’re still my friend, and friends want the best for each other. So let’s sit down and talk some more.”

William picked up his briefcase, preparing to move to another section of the waiting area, when he noticed an airline agent unlocking the door at Charles’s gate. He strode in that direction instead, the clattering noise behind him announcing that Caroline was following as fast as her high heels would permit. He stationed himself near the doorway, and soon she pulled up alongside him, one hand pressed to her recently enlarged bosom as she tried to catch her breath.

“Let’s not fight about this, darling.”

“I told you not to call me ‘darling,’” he snapped.

“I’m sorry. It’s a habit, but I’ll try to break it. How about ‘dear’?”

“How about ‘William’?”

“What does Elizabeth call you?”

“What possible business is that of yours?”

William’s cold stare and haughty tone might have warned off a lesser opponent, but Caroline wasn’t easily intimidated. “I just wondered if she had an adorable little pet name for you.”

He considered ignoring the question, but he hoped that a direct answer might put an end to this ridiculous conversation. “She calls me William.”

“I see.” Caroline’s ruby red lips twitched, and he saw a flash of something reptilian behind her eyes. “Then William it is.” She rested her hand on his arm, her smile sweet. “Please don’t be angry with me for my honesty. I want you to be happy, and I’m afraid you’re setting yourself up for misery. I could scarcely call myself your friend if I didn’t try to save you from that.”

William’s only response was a glacial stare. He was saved from further unwelcome advice when Charles breezed through the doorway followed by other passengers from the flight. He smiled at William, his teeth flashing against his surfer’s tan.

“Will! It’s good to see you.” Charles embraced William, who clapped him on the back with only a twinge of embarrassment.

Charles turned to Caroline next, their embrace more dutiful than affectionate. “I didn’t know you were coming to meet me,” he said. “It was nice of you, but you didn’t have to go to the trouble.”

“Oh, but don’t you find that it’s pleasant when people meet you at the airport, and when they take the extra trouble to see you off on a trip?”

William knew her barb was aimed at Elizabeth’s absence, but he ignored her and spoke to Charles. “Let’s find a place to get some coffee, preferably somewhere near my gate.”

“Unless you need something stronger by now,” Charles said quietly, tipping his head in Caroline’s direction. “I’m sure the delay seemed longer to you than it did to me.”

William snickered as he led the way down the concourse.

 

Half an hour later, William was finishing his second cup of decaf coffee and contemplating a third. He and Charles sat at a small table near an espresso cart at the end of the concourse—not a peaceful setting, but one where they could monitor the status of William’s flight. His airline’s club lounge was in a distant concourse, too far to justify the trip.

Caroline had refused Charles’s suggestion that she return to the city without him. They had banished her to a nearby table where she sat sipping espresso, playing with her rings, and scanning yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. With the announcements of flight arrivals and departures adding to the hubbub of travelers hurrying along the concourse, William doubted she could hear their conversation, but her occasional curious stares were still an inhibiting force.

William had surprised himself by talking to Charles at length about Elizabeth. He was finding unexpected pleasure in discussing their relationship, of course concealing details that would have compromised their privacy.

“I’m happy for you,” Charles said in a hearty tone. “And as I remind you constantly, Jane and I thought you two might hit it off. It just took you a little while to admit it. I didn’t expect it to get this serious, though.”

“Why do you say that?” William glanced involuntarily at Caroline, but her nose was buried in her newspaper.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think Lizzy’s terrific. But it seemed like you were looking for someone who grew up in a home like yours, who’s used to all of it. In fact, you said something like that the first time I mentioned her, before you even met her. Someone on your ‘social level,’ I think you might have said.”

William winced, wondering if he would ever live down those words.

Charles continued. “After you said that, I figured you still might enjoy Lizzy’s company, but it wouldn’t amount to anything more than some dinners and concerts now and then.”

“As you pointed out, that was before I met her.”

Charles swallowed the last of his coffee and set the cup on the table. “What does your grandmother think? Hasn’t she been pushing for Anne de Bourgh?”

“Gran is concerned about the situation, but she’ll love Lizzy once she knows her better.”

“I’m glad it’s working out so well. Lizzy’s obviously good for you. You look great.”

“I feel great. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Charles nodded. “That’s terrific. You’ve waited a long time to fall in love.”

A voice on the loudspeaker system interrupted their conversation, announcing a weather-related delay of William’s flight.

“Flying is a such pain,” Charles said. “But the good news is, we’ve got some extra time to talk, which makes up for my late arrival. Would you like some more coffee? It’s my turn to buy a round.”

“That sounds good. I’m drinking decaf.”

Charles jumped to his feet and approached the counter, chatting with the barista as she fixed their drinks. Caroline started to rise from her chair, obviously intent on joining William, but she withered under his warning stare and sank back into her seat. Good. She’s learning to take a hint. Bruce, whoever he is, must be a good influence.

“Here you go, Will. The barista asked who you were—she thought she recognized you—but I told her you just have a familiar face.”

“Thanks.” He wasn’t in the mood for more autograph seekers. He had already been accosted by a fan in the security line. “I think we’ve dissected my life for long enough. How are you doing, Charles? I’ve gotten the idea that things are improving.”

“They are—at work, anyway. My job isn’t so bad, and I’m kind of good at it.”

William glanced at his steaming coffee. It looked too hot to drink. “You sound surprised.”

“I am. This is the first job I’ve had in my father’s company where I felt at least marginally competent.”

“Then it’s good you asked for the job you wanted instead of accepting the one he chose for you.”

“Yeah. I’m glad you talked me into saying something.” Charles winced as he swallowed a mouthful of steaming coffee. He swallowed, blinking his eyes in obvious discomfort. “I should have talked to him ages ago. I just didn’t think he’d listen to me.”

“So things are going well?”

“Yes and no. The job is fine, and Mom and I have really gotten to know each other. She’s a lot stronger than she seems on the surface. She’s just used to deferring to Father.”

“But?”

“But I can’t seem to please Father, no matter what I do, so dealing with him is usually unpleasant. And above all, I miss Jane. I still love her. And sometimes …” A flight boarding announcement blared out, forcing Charles to pause. “Sometimes I think she might still have feelings for me too.”

“Has your father changed his mind about Jane?”

“No. He hates that I come up here, and he’s not one to suffer in silence. Still, I’m living in LA, like he wanted. Maybe if I offered a compromise he’d finally listen. But it depends on Jane, and whether or not she’d still want me.” Charles leaned forward, his elbows on the edge of the table. “You’ve seen more of her than I have in the past two months. What’s your opinion? Does she still care about me? And I want the truth, not what you think I want to hear.”

William took a cautious sip of his coffee while deciding what to say. Finally he responded to the entreaty in Charles’s anxious eyes and set down his cup. “I wish I could offer you encouragement, but you asked for the truth. And the truth is that I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s in love with you.”

Charles’s hopeful expression withered. “Are you sure? Jane’s not the sort to make a fuss about things. Does she ever mention me, maybe ask about me?”

“Not that I can recall. Your name comes up occasionally in conversation, but only in a general sense.”

“What about Lizzy? Has she ever said anything about Jane and me?”

“Let’s see.” William thought for a minute. “It’s an awkward topic for us, given our different loyalties, so we tend to avoid it. She asks about you occasionally. Nothing significant, just wondering if I’ve spoken to you recently. I can’t recall that she’s ever mentioned Jane’s feelings. She did say something yesterday about hoping you and Jane would reconcile.”

Charles’s expression brightened. “What else did she say?”

“That was all.”

“Still, that’s encouraging. At least she thinks it’s a possibility. What about other men? Is Jane still seeing that Jordan guy?”

“I don’t think so. Recently she’s been spending time with Richard.”

“Your cousin Richard? How could you let that happen?”

“‘Let’ isn’t an appropriate term when it comes to Richard,” William said with a wry grin. “He swears it’s platonic, and I believe him. He found someone else for non-platonic activities; for the past few days he and Charlotte Lucas have been inseparable.”

Charles raised his eyebrows at the mention of Charlotte, but then seemed to dismiss that news with a small shake of his head. “So he and Jane haven’t … slept together?”

William didn’t approve of discussing other people’s sex lives, even nonexistent ones, but he decided to make an exception to ease Charles’s mind. “Richard seemed to want her company and nothing more. And sometimes I think she was trying to keep Richard busy so Lizzy and I could have some privacy. He has a talent for showing up at inopportune moments.”

“That sounds like Jane,” Charles said, a sad smile on his face.

“I admit, there’s plenty to admire about her. Now that I know her better, I understand why you were drawn to her. But …” William glanced in Caroline’s direction to make sure she wasn’t eavesdropping. “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I still have reservations about her motives where you’re concerned … you, or any wealthy man. In fact, that might be another reason she was willing to spend time with Richard.”

“His money?”

William shrugged. “It fits the pattern.”

“Oh, come on, Will. If her primary interest is money, why would she have opened a solo family law practice? She’d be making a lot more at a big firm. But she wanted to help people, not protect corporations from lawsuits or defend criminals. I know you’ve seen how much she cares about her clients.”

“I admit, there are pieces that don’t add up. I like Jane, but everyone has a weakness.” William shifted his chair, knocking his briefcase on its side, and bent down to set it upright before continuing. “Earlier this morning I stopped by Jane and Lizzy’s place to drop off some things, and Mrs. Bennet was there. I overheard her instructing Jane in ways to attract you so she’d have a second chance at the money, and especially the house. Apparently Mrs. Bennet adores that house.”

Charles sat back and folded his arms across his chest. “All that proves is that Mrs. Bennet is interested in those things. What did Jane say?”

“I didn’t hear everything she said. Perhaps she’s resisting her mother’s influence. But consider that she grew up with the woman, hearing that kind of advice every day. It had to affect her.”

“So did Lizzy, and you don’t seem concerned in her case.” Charles’s tone was petulant.

“Lizzy and her mother have never seen eye to eye. She’s her father’s daughter. And she was cool toward me early in our relationship.” That was an understatement. “If she’d been interested in me for superficial reasons, she would have behaved differently.”

“Maybe so, but it shows that ‘like mother, like daughter,’ doesn’t necessarily apply.” Charles heaved a loud sigh. “So during this eavesdropping you were apparently doing today, Jane didn’t say anything about me?”

“She told her mother that you and she were friends now, nothing more.”

Charles winced. “She didn’t say anything about wishing we were more than friends? Or about her feelings for me?”

“If she did, I didn’t hear it.” William felt sorry for Charles, whose face was etched with disappointment. “Still, you seem to think she’s shown an interest in spending time with you.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling myself, but maybe I’ve just been seeing what I wanted to see. She’s always willing to see me if I’m in town, but she never asks me to come up. Even Lizzy’s party—I heard about it from you and hinted for an invitation, and of course Jane was too polite to refuse me.” Charles slumped in his chair. “So maybe she just thinks of me as a friend, but she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.”

Again William felt a wave of sympathy. “Perhaps she loves you and it simply isn’t apparent. But if you’re that unsure about her feelings and motives, I’d advise caution.”

Charles drained his cardboard coffee cup, crushed it between his fingers, and tossed it into a nearby trash can, a humorless grin twisting his mouth. “Maybe I should have had you tell me what I wanted to hear after all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay; I asked for it. I appreciate your honesty, Will. You’re a good friend.”

William didn’t feel like a good friend. But he owed Charles his honest opinion.

The gate agent made the pre-boarding announcement for William’s flight. “They’re playing your song,” Charles said, with a weak smile.

“Enjoy the party tonight.” William stood up and collected his briefcase. “I wish I could be there.”

“I bet Lizzy does too. Shall I give her a kiss for you?”

William chuckled at the rakish angle of Charles’s eyebrows. “I wouldn’t recommend it. I understand her man is a possessive sort.”

Caroline popped up from her table. “William, you’re leaving? I can’t believe you two left me alone all that time. I thought after you had a chance to tell your little secrets, you’d invite me over.” She hurried to William’s side and rested her hand on his arm, staring into his eyes. “Think about what I said earlier. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I appreciate your concern. Goodbye, Caroline.” William evaded her attempt to kiss him, shook Charles’s hand, and crossed to his gate.

Later, as the plane roared into the sky, he watched the graceful bay and its surrounding canvas of hills and valleys recede into the distance, finally vanishing behind a dense curtain of clouds. Caroline was right about one thing: these two months have been a vacation from reality. And vacation is over.

With a sigh, William pulled down his window shade and opened his book, settling in for the long journey ahead.

 

“Here you go,” Charlotte said. “One more birthday gift. I thought it was better to wait till the crowd thinned before you opened it.”

Elizabeth’s birthday dinner was officially over, and the remaining guests had migrated into the restaurant’s bar area. She was seated at a small round table with Charlotte and Richard, not far from the table where Jane chatted with some neighbors from the condo building. The members of Golden Gate Jazz, except for Bill Collins, were clustered with Charles at one end of the bar. Bill had been invited to the party along with the other band members but had refused, citing a prior commitment involving Catherine de Bourgh. “Right,” Charlotte had chortled at the news, “he’s probably parking cars for some big party on her estate.”

Elizabeth inspected the red gift bag Charlotte had just placed on the table. “But, Char, you already gave me my present. Our day at the spa was fantastic.”

“I’m glad you liked it. But this is just a little something extra. I thought you might find it useful.”

“Finally, the mystery gift is unveiled.” Richard drained his glass of scotch. “All Charlotte would tell me was that William would enjoy it even more than you did.”

“Oh, really?” Elizabeth eyed the bag with trepidation. “It sounds like I’d better wait till I get home to open it.”

“Not a chance,” Richard said. “Inquiring minds want to know.”

Elizabeth peeked into the bag, fearing that she’d find something microscopic or transparent to wear. Instead, she saw a paperback book standing on end beside three small plastic bottles. She reached for the book first, chiding herself for her overactive imagination.

Her relief was short-lived when she saw the book cover. “Char! I can’t believe you did that!” She slapped the book face down on the table, her cheeks flaming, and glared at Charlotte.

“Just a little instruction manual on the care and feeding of the male organ,” Charlotte said with a smirk. “I thought it might come in handy.”

“I assume you’ve read it.” Richard turned to Charlotte, a lascivious glint in his eyes.

“Read it? What makes you think I didn’t write it?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me if you had.” Richard unfurled his crooked grin, and Elizabeth felt a pang. She had never noticed how much it resembled William’s.

“Seriously, Liz, you might find some helpful hints in the book. If nothing else, you’ll have fun experimenting.”

“And the bottles?” Elizabeth removed one from the bag.

“Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry-flavored lubricants. A Neapolitan treat. I figured it was appropriate since William is half Italian.”

“And when in Rome …” Richard rose to his feet. “I need a refill. Anybody else?”

“I want to try a Monkey Business,” Charlotte said. “The name intrigues me.”

“How apropos,” Richard replied. “Lizzy, how about you?”

“A Mangopolitan, please.” The E&O Trading Company, the site of Elizabeth’s party, offered a wide selection of tropical-themed cocktails along with southeast Asian dishes. Elizabeth had become a staunch fan of the mango-flavored Cosmopolitan they served.

Richard sauntered to the bar to place their orders. Elizabeth jammed the book back into the gift bag and fixed a narrowed stare on Charlotte.

“Sorry, Liz. I didn’t mean to embarrass you in front of Richard. But he already knows you and William did the deed, so I didn’t see the harm.”

“How does he know? Did you tell him?”

“I didn’t need to. He said William couldn’t stop smiling when they went running yesterday morning. He didn’t actually admit to anything, but it was pretty obvious what had happened, and that William was over the moon about it.”

Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. “I guess it’s pointless to hope for a little privacy around here.”

“I’m afraid so. You light up like a tiki torch when William walks into a room, and whenever you’re nearby his eyes practically hop out of their sockets and skitter around after you. It’s pretty easy for the rest of us to gauge the state of your relationship.”

“I wish his eyes were following me around right now.”

“I know.” Charlotte’s tone was matter-of-fact, but sympathy shone in her eyes. “But he’ll be back soon. And he left you quite a keepsake.”

Elizabeth smiled and fingered the emerald for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. “I know. I can’t seem to stop looking at it.”

“I don’t mean to seem mercenary, but you should have it appraised and insured. I bet it cost him a bundle.”

“William said he’d take care of that.”

“Okay, but you do realize that a really good emerald of that size can cost several thousand dollars, right?”

Elizabeth stared down at the stone. “Several thousand?”

“Emeralds aren’t cheap, at least good ones aren’t.” Charlotte reached out and cradled the pendant in her hand, examining the gem. “It’s hard to tell much about the stone in this light, but William Darcy wouldn’t buy you a piece of crap, so I’m sure it’s top quality. I bet you’re wearing at least five grand around your neck, and it could easily have cost twice that much.”

Elizabeth gulped. “You’re just saying that to make me nervous.” But she knew Charlotte was right; William would buy only the best. She just hadn’t understood before how expensive “the best” could be. “And to think I wore it to rehearsal this morning with my jeans and tennis shoes.”

“What’s wrong with that? He didn’t give it to you so it could be locked away in a drawer. I say wear it and enjoy it. A good emerald goes with anything.”

Richard returned with their drinks, and Roger ambled over to join them. He looped his arm loosely around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “Hey, sweetie, how’s it going?”

“Hey, that’s my cousin’s woman you’re mauling.” Richard glared at Roger with mock belligerence. “Don’t make me come over there and pummel you into the ground in the name of family honor.”

Elizabeth kissed Roger’s cheek. “Yeah, but he’s my date tonight.” Roger had proposed that they join forces for the evening since neither had a date. She had accepted with gratitude, largely because it would leave Jane free to be with Charles.

“And as for you, you shameless hussy—” Richard paused, shrugging. “Hey, what the hell. Live it up. It’s your party.”

“And I’ll cry if I want to.” Elizabeth sang the words.

“Or there’s that other old song: ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,’” Charlotte said, raising her glass. “That’s always been my philosophy.”

“My kind of woman.” Richard clinked glasses with her. “By the way, I know I’m not half Italian, but I like Neapolitan flavors too. Did you get some extra bottles of that stuff?”

“What stuff?” Roger asked.

“Ignore him; he’s babbling about nothing,” Elizabeth answered quickly, darting a warning glance at Charlotte and Richard. “How is Charles?”

Roger shrugged. “He’s fine. Why do you ask?”

Charlotte snickered. “Liz, you can’t expect guys to pick up subtleties.”

“I guess not.”

“I resemble that remark,” Roger said. “What did I miss?”

Elizabeth shook her head sadly. “Haven’t you noticed the way Charles and Jane seem so distant with each other tonight?”

Roger frowned. “But they sat together at dinner.”

It was true, but Elizabeth had sensed coolness between them. And since dinner, they had placed themselves in separate conversational circles.

“I need another beer,” Roger said, rising to his feet. “Why don’t the three of you join us at the bar? Jim’s been telling jokes, but I’m sure he’d stop if we begged him.”

“We will, in a few minutes.”

Elizabeth glanced around the bar, a sudden wave of loneliness seizing her. She checked her watch. It was late, but during their brief conversation after his arrival in New York he had invited her to call him as late as she liked. “My brain is still on San Francisco time,” he had said. “And there’s no sense trying to adjust since I’m only going to be here for a few days.”

She pulled her phone out of her purse and excused herself, finding a secluded nook near the rest rooms. As she had hoped, William answered promptly.

“Hello, cara. I was hoping you’d call.”

“I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No. I’m in bed reading. Or perhaps I should say I’m trying to read. Mostly I’m thinking how cold and lonely my bed is, and how much I wish you were curled up next to me.” The tenderness in his voice spread over her like a warm blanket.

“I wish I were there too.”

“I hope you’re enjoying the party.”

“I am, but it’s not the same without you. I almost cried when Jane gave me the rose you left for me. And thank you so much for the DVD! I’ve heard it has all sorts of great extras.”

“I thought you’d like it.” William had left a final birthday gift with Jane: The Sound of Music on DVD.

“You were smart not to give it to me till you were gone. That way you ought to be able to escape watching it with me over and over. I’ll inflict that on Jane instead, like I’ve done with my videotape dozens of times. When I was a kid, I even had little routines that went with parts of it—lines I’d say or sing along with the characters and things I’d rewind to watch again.”

“Actually, that sounds entertaining.”

“It might be, for the first ten minutes. And speaking of perfect gifts, everybody’s been drooling over the pendant.”

“Not the men, I hope.” She could hear the smile in his voice.

“No, not the men. In fact, Richard says you’re wrecking the curve for ordinary guys.”

He chuckled. “He was already annoyed because I wouldn’t give him the keys to the Ferrari.”

“He mentioned that. He says he’s going to hot wire it and go joyriding. Seriously, though, he and Roger seem to have appointed themselves my guardians on your behalf.”

“I’ll have to thank them the next time I see them.”

They fell silent, and Elizabeth’s smile faded.

“I miss you.” His soft voice was like a caress.

“I miss you too.”

“With your busy schedule next week, you’ll barely notice I’m gone.”

South Pacific was in its final week of rehearsals before opening night on Friday. She would indeed be busy, but that was beside the point. “It just means I’ll be at rehearsal instead of at home while I’m missing you.”

Silence fell between them again. Elizabeth would have been content to stay on the line for hours without speaking, simply knowing he was at the other end, but he needed to get some sleep, and she needed to return to her guests. “I guess I should go.”

“I’m keeping you from your party. Though I admit, I don’t much care.”

She laughed softly. “We’ll talk tomorrow night?”

“I’ll call you. I love you, Lizzy.”

“I love you too. Sleep well.”

When she returned to the table, Richard sat alone. “Where’s Char?” she asked.

“Upstairs. She thinks her lipstick fell out of her purse during dinner, and she’s checking under the table. How’s Will?”

“He’s fine. He said to tell you he’s got a hidden alarm on the car, and if you hot wire it you’re in for a shock, literally.”

Richard chuckled, his gaze sweeping the room. His smile faded as his eyes rested on Jane. “Just for the record, I’m not as obtuse as some of the other members of the Y Chromosome Club. I agree. Jane and Chuckles are giving off a weird vibe.”

“Has she talked to you about Charles?”

“She’s said enough that I know she’s nuts about him, even if some people can’t see it.” He sat forward in his chair. “In fact, I hate to spoil my reputation for all-occasion cynicism, but that’s something I admire about you and Will.”

“What?” She plucked the tiny purple orchid from her drink and sipped from the glass.

“The way you’ve been able to get past his opinion of Jane.”

“His opinion of Jane?” She set down her glass more firmly than she had intended, and some of the liquid sloshed over the rim.

“Oops, careful there.” He handed her a cocktail napkin. “Yeah. He told me all about the business with the pre-nup. But there’s no way Jane is on the prowl for a rich husband. That’s not her style. She’s too good for that.”

Elizabeth frowned, trying to make sense of Richard’s remarks. “William must have told you this quite a while ago.” It was the only possible explanation.

“Yeah. He first told me about the pre-nup right after he got home from the wedding, or the wedding that wasn’t.”

“That’s what I thought.” It was old information, nothing more. William had been suspicious of Jane’s motives in those days, before he had gotten to know her.

“And he mentioned it again a couple of weeks ago, the day we got here.”

She sat up straight in her chair but didn’t comment.

“We’d just finished dinner—at Foreign Cinema, I think—and Jane and I were headed off on our own. It was an entertaining bit of theater. You dragged Jane off to the ladies’ room to warn her about my reputation for screwing everything that moves. Meanwhile, Will grabbed me by the balls and threatened to amputate them if I messed with Jane.”

“He’s protective of the people he cares about.” Elizabeth relaxed; she’d obviously misunderstood Richard’s implications before.

“Yeah, he is, so he finished his lecture by reminding me about Jane and the pre-nup. Pretty ridiculous, wasn’t it, to think I was in danger? Even if I agreed with his view of her priorities, it’s not as though I’m the marrying kind. Anyway, that’s when I thought, ‘I give them credit for being able to agree to disagree about Jane.’”

Elizabeth’s mind whirled. It seemed impossible, and yet she saw no reason why Richard would have invented the incident.

When she didn’t comment, Richard spoke again. “It goes to show that there really is something to this whole love business. It could almost make a believer out of me, the operative word being ‘almost.’”

Elizabeth gave him a tight smile and sipped her drink in silence. Charlotte returned from upstairs, waving her lipstick in triumph.

Soon afterwards, the trio left their table and joined the group at the other end of the bar. As Elizabeth listened to the jovial conversation, she forced Richard’s remarks aside until later. There had to be an explanation, but she wouldn’t find it in the noisy party atmosphere.

 

3:27 am.

William blinked to clear his vision, but the display on the clock didn’t change. 3:27, precisely six minutes later than the last time he had looked.

He had been checking the clock at regular intervals for the past hour. His mind and body were still attuned to California time, which made it almost twelve thirty, not particularly late by his standards. But after two nights of sacrificing sleep in favor of more pleasurable pursuits, he had hoped that fatigue would claim him quickly. Obviously it was not to be.

It was a familiar experience, lying in this bed longing for her, and memories of the last summer’s loneliness washed over him. Hoping to find some measure of comfort, he summoned her up, her lips warm and sweet as they clung to his, her loving hands stroking his hair. But her phantom presence stirred his desire instead of soothing his soul, and now the ache in his body rivaled the one in his heart.

He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. A veteran of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of sleepless nights, he knew that in this situation determination did not guarantee results. It was time to surrender to wakefulness. He wrapped himself in his robe and crossed the hallway to his study. Weak ribbons of light filtered in through the windows, providing all the illumination he needed.

His piano beckoned, waiting patiently in the dark for his touch. “I missed you,” he murmured, the polished keys whispering a cool welcome as he brushed them with his fingers. He seated himself, his hands poised over the keys, and then the music began, streaming from a place deep inside him as though he were merely its conduit.

The Nocturne he played1 suited his mood to perfection. Chopin had understood late-night yearning, the quiet ache of a soul subdued but not at peace. The poignant melody wove its spell, his bond with the instrument a peculiar form of love that few would understand.

The final chord drifted into the darkness, his hands unmoving but still cradled on the keys. Images of the past weeks floated around him: fog clinging to the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, the fiery sun extinguished as it slipped into the ocean at sunset, and a pair of green eyes shining from a face that had become the center of his world.

A phrase tugged at his sleeve, the title of a song so well known that the cliché made him feel foolish. Yet as he tried to brush it away, it clung firmly to him until he surrendered with a rueful smile. “Oh, all right.” His voice sounded unnaturally loud in the stillness of the room. “It’s certainly appropriate.”

Cliché it might have been, but as he improvised a gentle rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,”2 he couldn’t deny the truth of the words.

------
1 Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9, No. 2, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Claudio Arrau on Chopin: Complete Nocturnes and Impromptus, © 1997, Philips Classics. Recorded 1978. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

2 “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by D. Cross and G. Cory. Performed by Emile Pandolfi on What a Wonderful World, © 1999, MagicMusic Productions. Listen to a sample on iTunes.