“I miss you,” she whispered as she perched on the edge of the bed.

“And I need you, more than you could possibly imagine.” He captured her hand and drew it to his lips. “Please, love, come back to me.”

“I don’t know if I can find my way back.”

“I’ll help you. Somehow, I’ll find a way.”

He reached up to pull her into his arms, but she proved insubstantial, his fingers clutching at nothing but air.

“Will?”

He gaped at her phantom form, wondering why the pitch of her musical voice had plummeted.

“Will? Wake up.”

The voice, a hint of impatience woven through its core, pierced the fog of William’s dream. His eyes creaked open and he saw an oddly fuzzy Charles looming over him. “Sorry to wake you.” the out-of-focus figure intoned, “but it’s getting late and I’m starved.”

William grasped at the receding wisps of his dream, but she was gone. “What time is it?” he croaked, pulling himself upright with difficulty, the lure of the plush comforter nearly holding him in its thrall. He hated falling asleep in the afternoon; it practically guaranteed him a muzzy head for the rest of the day.

“Almost seven. How long were you asleep?”

William frowned, massaging his forehead. He had left the patio for his room shortly after four, had stretched out on the bed with his book, and … That was all he remembered. He shrugged and rose unsteadily to his feet. “Give me five minutes, and I’ll be ready to go.”

pool at Bingley estate They didn’t say much on the drive to the restaurant. The entire afternoon had been subdued, the scene at the hospital casting a pall over their spirits. After a late lunch on the patio, Charles had snored the day away in the shade of a large umbrella, a victim of emotional exhaustion assisted, no doubt, by the contents of the empty Anchor Steam bottles littering the area around his lounge chair. William, left to his own devices, had alternated between reading his book and absently watching the breeze stir up tiny currents in the pristine swimming pool. Mrs. Bingley’s return from the hospital had shaken them from their lassitude. William had departed for his room soon after to give them privacy.

Red Pearl restaurant “We’ll probably have to wait a while for a table,” Charles said as he stopped the car in front of Red Pearl Kitchen. “This place is a little too popular for its own good sometimes. In fact, I’m going to drop you right here. You can get our name on the list while I park.”

The restaurant was as busy as Charles had predicted, but William secured a table almost immediately. The manager happened to be weaving her way through the packed lobby just as William offered his name to the hostess in resonant tones designed to cut through the din of the trendy crowd thronging the bar. Assisted by his last name, the manager recognized him from his concert at the Hollywood Bowl in early June. She personally escorted him to a recently-vacated booth, the warmth of her smile suggesting that her interest wasn’t limited to his keyboard technique.

masu box Charles arrived simultaneously with a pitcher of sake and two lacquered masu boxes, traditional vessels in which to drink it. “Compliments of the manager,” the server reported, handing William the manager’s business card, with a hand-written message on the back.

“Nice to see you haven’t lost your touch,” Charles remarked, smirking. “The service here can be kind of rushed, but I have a feeling we’ll get the royal treatment tonight.” He poured the sake into the boxes and raised one. “To my future, though heaven knows what it’s going to look like.”

William tapped his masu box against Charles’s in an awkward gesture and drank. He ordinarily preferred warm sake, but the chilled brew was light and smooth. “How is your mother handling everything?” he asked.

Charles poured himself another serving of sake. “Pretty well. At first she tried to convince me to go back to Father tomorrow and try to negotiate a compromise.”

“But you’re not going to?”

“I think it’s a little late for that.”

William nodded, taking another sip of the sake. Its light floral scent held a hint of jasmine, and Elizabeth’s face floated before him.

“She finally agreed that I have to make a clean break. I tried to get her to leave with me, but she refused to even discuss it. That’s the only thing. I hate to leave her alone with him.”

“Won’t Caroline be there?”

Charles raised a skeptical eyebrow. “That’s no help. She’d never take Mom’s side.”

“Does your father usually treat your mother that way?”

“He’s always been hard on her. He doesn’t have much patience with any sort of weakness, but that was about the worst I’ve ever seen from him. She was right about one thing; he’s had an unusually short fuse since he’s been in the hospital.”

Darcys are not weaklings. And even if they are, they never show it. The sonorous voice echoed in William’s mind, a stern ghost from his childhood. “I’m sure you got the worst of it, because you’re his son.”

“He expected a lot of me, and I always seemed to find a way to disappoint him.”

William poured himself more sake and took a long, slow drink before he spoke again. “So what now?”

“Damned if I know. Maybe I’ll move to New York and we can put a jazz group together.”

William didn’t have time for an active jazz group, and Charles knew that. But it was too soon to expect Charles to have a serious career plan prepared. “If you come to New York, you’d be welcome to stay at the townhouse for a while. In fact, Mrs. Reynolds would probably be insulted if you stayed anywhere else.”

Charles chuckled. “And we all know she’s the real boss of that house. Thanks. I may take you up on that.”

The waiter arrived to take their orders, his efficiency catching them unprepared. William deferred to Charles, who ordered a variety of his favorite small plates to be shared, while William yawned behind his hand, still fighting the remnants of his unplanned nap. He glanced around the crowded room. It offered an odd mixture of peaceful and enervating influences, the relentless bustle contrasting with the rich wood tones and dark reds that glowed in the warm light provided, in a surprisingly kitschy touch, by ornate Chinese lanterns suspended from the ceiling.

Once the waiter had departed with an order that seemed sufficient for a family of six, William asked Charles, “When do you have to be out of the house?”

“Friday morning at the latest. That’s when they’re planning to release Father. I’ve got a buddy from high school who’ll probably let me crash on his sofa till I figure out what to do.”

William felt an invisible elbow nudging him. It was time to stop procrastinating. “What about going back to San Francisco? You seemed happy there.”

Charles looked stricken. “I was, but …” He ran a finger over the surface of the sake pitcher. “Well, you know.”

There would never be a better opportunity to mention Jane. William opened his mouth to speak, but Charles was faster. “Mom asked me the same question. And I still own the house. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it after … everything. That would have been like admitting it was really over.”

William thought of the diamond ring hidden in his dressing room at the penthouse. “Isn’t Caroline living there?”

“She was, but after what just happened, I think she’s back in LA for good. Anyway, I’ll probably sell it. I don’t think I could stand to live there alone, even if I could afford the mortgage payments.”

“Mortgage payments? I thought you bought it outright.” He could still hear Mrs. Bennet crowing about Charles paying cash for the house.

Charles sighed. “That’s what I told Jane. She’s so sensible about money, it would have horrified her to know how much I borrowed to get it. I wanted us to have someplace beautiful to live, where we could raise a family, and making the payments wasn’t a problem … back then.”

“But surely you had access to enough cash to buy the house without needing a mortgage.” Pacific Heights real estate was toward the high end of the pricey San Francisco housing market, but well within reach of the Bingleys.

“Not without alerting Father, and I didn’t want him to know we were buying it.”

Now it made sense. “If it would help, I could assume the mortgage payments temporarily … or even pay off the loan. You could reimburse me later.” William didn’t care if Charles ever repaid him or not, but he knew his friend wouldn’t accept a gift of that size.

“Thanks, Will, but Father was right. I can’t let you finance my flight into the unknown. Besides, like I said, I don’t think I could handle living there alone.”

The first of their ordered dishes arrived with a promptness that raised both their eyebrows. “We’re definitely getting special treatment,” Charles said. “I think the manager must want to be more than just your fan. Did she put her home phone number on the card?”

In fact, she had, but William ignored the question and transferred some of the hot chili-crusted calamari to his plate. He tasted it gingerly, finding it delicious despite the small thermonuclear explosion in his mouth. “There’s something I need to ask you,” he said, when he could speak again.

Charles looked up expectantly, his face slightly pink as he chewed the calamari.

“Why didn’t Jane sign the pre-nup?”

Charles swallowed, gulped some water, and frowned at William. “Why bring that up now?”

William hadn’t intended to be quite so abrupt. “I’ve been wanting to ask about it. I know Jane didn’t want to sign, but I wondered why.”

“Will, do we have to revisit that horrid weekend on top of everything else that’s happened today?”

“I have a reason for asking. It could be important.”

“You really want to talk about this?”

William was counting on the fact that Charles was too polite to tell him to mind his own business, as might have happened had their roles been reversed. “I assume she gave you a reason.”

Charles nodded, spooning the last pieces of calamari onto his plate. “Father insisted on having her signature that night, and she wanted to wait till the morning so she could consult with someone. But that wasn’t the main problem.”

“Oh?” William was careful to maintain a noncommittal expression.

“She said she didn’t respect me anymore.”

William had a vague recollection of Charles mentioning this. “Why not?”

“Partly because of the insane stunt I pulled with the pre-nup. I don’t know what I was thinking, though at the time it seemed reasonable. Mostly, it bothered her that I wouldn’t stand up to Father.”

“She wanted you to?” William’s chopsticks froze on their way to his mouth.

“Yeah. Or at the very least, to argue for a compromise.”

A second dish arrived, but William didn’t take any, his stomach churning. Had Jane’s primary interest been Charles’s money, she would never have urged him to defy Mr. Bingley. He dragged a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”

“I did.”

“All you said was that Jane refused to sign the pre-nup. You wouldn’t talk about it beyond that.”

“When?”

“That night, in my suite.”

“Give me a break, Will! If you had just lost the woman you loved, would you be in the mood for a long chat?”

The discussion had just taken a turn that brought it uncomfortably close to home. “I just wish I’d known,” William mumbled, emptying the contents of the sake pitcher into his masu box.

Their conversation ceased momentarily when a large and noisy group passed by on their way to a table. Then Charles looked up from his plate, his brow furrowed. “Why bring this up now?” he asked. “Seems like a moot point.”

William had heard that confession was good for the soul, and could only hope it was true. “I think I may have given you some bad advice when it comes to Jane.”

“You mean about her being after my money?” Charles waved his chopsticks at William. “I never believed that. She’s not her mother, any more than Lizzy is. But you were right about the rest of it, when you said she’d gotten over me. It was obvious the weekend of Lizzy’s party.”

William discovered a tiny spot of chili sauce on his shirt. Muttering an oath under his breath, he dipped his napkin into his water glass and tried to clean it. Then he ordered himself to stop stalling. “I don’t think so.” he said firmly. “I don’t know what went on that weekend, but Lizzy says Jane still loves you.”

Charles’s eyes widened briefly, but then he shook his head. “No. I’ve seen her with this other guy, Jordan. She’s moved on.”

“I told you I didn’t think that was serious, any more than you ever were with what’s-her-name, the one you brought to Catherine de Bourgh’s party.”

“So you think she …” Charles’s chopsticks clattered as they hit his plate. “Are you sure?”

“Lizzy seems sure.”

“Then why did you keep telling me Jane had gotten over me? You even said she might have feelings for Richard.”

William licked his lips, wishing he could become invisible. “I told you their relationship was platonic.”

“On his side. But you implied that for her it might have been more.”

“I still thought she was after your money, and Richard has money too, so …” William didn’t bother to finish the sentence. Even to him, it sounded like the worst kind of weak-minded rationalization.

Charles sat back in the booth, his eyes icy blue as they bored into William. “The only reason you’ve been warning me away from Jane was because you thought she was a fortune hunter?”

“It wasn’t the only reason. But … yes, it influenced my judgment.”

“I can’t believe this. I told you she wasn’t like that.”

“And how many times had I heard that before? Remember Amanda York, your freshman year? And the redhead you dated sophomore year, the one who almost convinced you to elope on Valentine’s Day?”

Charles scowled, folding his arms across his chest. “Don’t you think I’ve learned a few things since college?”

“I could list a few other names since then. You’re too quick to give people, and especially women, the benefit of the doubt. And besides—” William stopped himself.

“What?”

“If you’d told me more the weekend of the wedding, none of this would have happened.” William glowered at Charles, aware for the first time how angry he was with his friend.

“You don’t know that. I know you think I’m gullible, but I’ve never understood why you’re always in such a rush to think the worst of everyone. You were questioning Jane’s motives before you even met her, before you knew anything about the pre-nup.”

The men glared at each other across the table until at last William dropped his eyes to his plate. They sat in uneasy silence, avoiding eye contact, their table an enclave of tension and stillness in the midst of the busy restaurant.

Two more dishes arrived at the table. Charles glanced at the food and made a face. “I can’t eat anything else. You?”

William shook his head. His appetite had evaporated.

“Then let’s get out of here.”

 

The grandfather clock announced that it was midnight, its deep tones echoing in the cavernous foyer and drifting up the staircase to William’s room. He glanced at the bedside clock to verify the time and then returned to his book, only to realize that he’d been “reading” the same page for the past hour. Concentration was impossible with so many unsettling thoughts darting randomly to and fro in his mind, like arrows fired by inebriated archers. It was going to be a long night; in fact, it had already been a long night.

Charles had said nothing on the drive back to the house, his anger obvious in the frosty quality of his silence as he stared straight ahead, his jaw set in a firm line. Ever the conscientious host, he had invited William into the library for a drink on their return home. But instead of providing an opportunity to mend fences, what little conversation they had shared had been stilted and pointless, and William had escaped to his room claiming fatigue as soon as politeness allowed. It astonished him that in the course of four days he had managed to rouse the wrath of both the woman he loved and his closest friend.

His attempts to lose himself in his book had been thwarted by occasional waves of rationalization as he sought to absolve himself of blame. These had alternated with intervals of self-recrimination. Sensory traces of Elizabeth crowded his mind and heart: the dazzling smile that greeted him each time they met, the comforting pressure of her hand in his when they walked side by side, the scent of jasmine that would forever haunt him … and the pain and anger clouding her emerald eyes just a few days ago.

It magnified his pain to realize that he had helped to sentence Charles to this same hell. It was tempting to argue that it wasn’t the same, that Charles’s love for Jane must be shallow compared to his devotion to Elizabeth or Charles would have brooked no interference in pursuing his heart’s desire. But even if that were true, in the end it made no difference. Charles loved Jane above any other woman, and William had done his best to separate them.

An indecorous groaning noise interrupted his thoughts. It was his stomach, uncharacteristically immune to his emotional upheaval. Their aborted dinner had been insufficient to last him until morning, and obviously his stomach intended to voice its discontent.

Mindful of Caroline’s presence in the house, he belted his robe securely over his pajamas and crept downstairs to the kitchen. When he switched on the light, a shrill noise drove his heart into his throat.

“Good God, you scared me!” Charles sagged against the refrigerator.

“I noticed.” It had been evident from Charles’s shriek, or perhaps “shout” was a more manly description. “I take it you’re hungry too?”

“Yeah. Should have brought the rest of our food home. I could go for some chicken satay right now.”

William leaned on the counter, watching Charles inventory the refrigerator. The kitchen was ruthlessly contemporary, all gleaming black and white and stainless steel, smelling faintly of cleanser. Sterile. Yes, that was the right word. An uncharacteristic wave of homesickness washed over him as he thought of the apples-and-cinnamon warmth of Mrs. Reynolds’s cheerful domain in New York.

“How about a sandwich?” Charles asked. “Looks like everything we need is here.”

“That sounds good.”

Charles worked efficiently, setting out ingredients and inviting William to assemble his own snack. Soon they were seated at the small kitchen table, munching away in silence, a companionable silence entirely without the earlier tension.

“I owe you an apology,” Charles said after swallowing a bite of the thick sandwich.

“No, you don’t.”

“Yeah, I do. I shouldn’t have gotten so bent out of shape. Granted, you were wrong about Jane, and we could debate how much is your fault for jumping to conclusions, and how much is mine for doing such a crappy job of explaining things. But I say, let’s call it a draw and move on.”

“I agree. And I apologize for my role in what happened.”

“The thing is, didn’t I just tell Father, about twelve hours ago, that I wanted to make my own choices? Any time I wanted, I could have told you to cram your opinions where the sun couldn’t shine on them.”

William smiled as best he could with his mouth full.

“And besides that, I was overlooking the most important point,” Charles continued. “Lizzy thinks Jane still loves me. You did say that, right? I wasn’t hallucinating?”

“You weren’t hallucinating.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard in …” Charles shrugged, chuckling softly. “It’s the best news I’ve ever heard.”

It was good to see a broad grin on Charles’s face. “What are you going to do about it?” William asked.

“Fly, drive, or, if necessary, run up to San Francisco as soon as possible and find out if it’s true.” Charles rose to his feet, his empty plate in his hand. “Of course I still have to win back her respect.”

“You took a big step in that direction today.”

Charles seemed to expand, stretching taller, as he absorbed this thought. “I’m still hungry. Want some ice cream, or maybe a piece of pie?”

“I think I’m going to turn in.” William carried his plate to the sink. “And again, Charles, I’m sorry for interfering. I shouldn’t have …” He shook his head sadly.

“It’s okay. Really. I know you meant well.”

If only Lizzy felt that way. With a deep sigh, William climbed the stairs, wondering in what form she would visit him tonight.

 

foyer of Bingley estateThe piano squawked a series of out-of-tune chords, and William yanked his hands from the keys as though they were coated with acid, grimacing at the dissonant echo fading away too slowly to suit his ears. Practicing had seemed like an excellent idea, but that was before he’d discovered that the Bingleys’ gleaming instrument was all form and no substance. He should have expected nothing else of a piano whose main function seemed to be decorating the sun-drenched foyer, dwarfed by the massive curved staircase.

He checked his watch. It wasn’t quite ten thirty. Charles was at the office meeting with his former assistant and didn’t expect to be back until some time after lunch. It was a good opportunity to contact Sonya, who had some documents to fax him for his signature. He remembered seeing a combination printer/scanner/fax machine in the library, so he headed in that direction.

Caroline gave a little shriek when he pushed the door open. She was seated at the desk, a paper shredder by her side, an empty file folder open in front of her.

“Good morning,” William said. He appeared to have developed a talent for startling Bingley family members by entering rooms. All the color had drained from her face; even her bright red lips seemed to have faded to a half-hearted shade of pink.

“Hello, William.” She shoved the folder into a desk drawer and then, hands folded on the desk, twisted her lips into an unconvincing attempt at a guileless smile.

He raised an eyebrow, intrigued by her peculiar behavior. “I wanted to use the fax machine, but I can come back later.”

“No, feel free to use it now,” she said, leaning over abruptly to switch off the paper shredder and rising to her feet. “We’ve scarcely had a chance to chat while you’ve been here, and you’re leaving tonight, aren’t you?”

“You’ve been busy the past few days.” Her absences had been an unanticipated blessing.

“Things have been … stressful.”

“You must be thrilled that Charles and your father are going their separate ways.”

“Thrilled?” She made a tut-tutting sound and glanced down, her eyes scanning the floor. “How can you think that? Charles is my brother, and he’s going to be penniless.” With an air that was a few degrees too casual, she slid her foot forward, pushing a slip of shredded paper under the edge of the rug.

“Which means more money for you. Wasn’t that why you manipulated the situation with the pre-nup, the weekend of his wedding? Weren’t you trying to drive a wedge between Charles and your father, hoping you’d get Charles out of the way so you could finally be taken seriously?”

“Men are such fools,” Caroline spat out, her sudden vehemence startling William. “I’m ten times more qualified to run the company than any man, because I don’t carry ninety percent of my brains around between my legs. Yet nothing I do is appreciated. Charles spent the summer and fall traipsing around writing press releases, leaving me to keep things running when Daddy got sick. And despite all that, Daddy handed him the keys to the empire.”

He was surprised to feel some vestiges of sympathy for Caroline. From everything he’d heard she possessed genuine business acumen, yet Mr. Bingley considered her one Y chromosome shy of the required number for an executive. “But Charles is leaving, so it’s your turn now, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. It might have been, but now …” She shook her head, trotting out another cheery smile that made William wonder if she stored them up for future use, like a squirrel saving nuts for the winter. “So you’re off to Australia tonight. Is Elizabeth going with you?”

William made a mental note never to feel sympathy for Caroline again, no matter what calamity befell her. He knew where she intended to steer the conversation, and it promised to be unpleasant. “Lizzy can’t get away for that long because of her job.”

“Oh, what a pity,” she said in a sweet voice laced with arsenic. “She seems to have so many priorities in her life—her job, her sister, her friends … and you, of course, whenever she can spare a few minutes. Oh, and that little jazz group she sings with, too. Did she mention that I saw them perform on Thursday?”

“Yes.” William rapped out the word, his tone intended to discourage further discussion.

“Of course, if I’d had the slightest idea what was happening with poor Daddy I’d never have been there, but Charles didn’t call me till later that night.” She paused, her appraising glance locked on his face. When he didn’t reply, she spoke again, a hint of impatience adding a hard edge to her tone. “Did Elizabeth tell you what we talked about?”

He spoke in a tight voice, his jaw clenched. “That’s enough of the coy routine. Yes, she told me. You made certain she knew that I’d kept Charles from reconciling with Jane. And you did it out of pure spite.”

“Out of spite? I beg your pardon.” She raised her eyebrows, her supercilious tone making William grind his teeth. “As close as you two are reputed to be, naturally I assumed you’d have confessed everything to her long ago. How could I have known that I was giving away your secret?”

“Stop it,” he snapped, shoving his hands into his pockets. “You were thrilled to have the chance to hurt her and you know it. Just once, why don’t you surprise both of us and be honest?”

“You want honesty?” Caroline’s imperious gaze slid over him. “All right. I’ve said it before. She’s not good enough for you, not even close. And if you can’t see that, someone needs to show you.”

“And you’ve appointed yourself to that post.” His dreams last night had tormented him with a vision of Elizabeth as he had last seen her, her eyes wet with tears he had caused. He needed to lash out at something, and the red-haired menace standing defiantly in front of him with her hands on her hips was a deserving target.

“I doubt I’m the only one,” she replied in a snide tone, a knowing look in her eyes. “Your grandmother must be beside herself to have her heir behaving this way. A little nobody like Elizabeth Bennet gives you a come-hither look and jiggles her boobs in your face, and you start panting and drooling and letting her lead you around by the nose … or some other part of your anatomy. Never mind class or style or breeding. Can’t you see that she’s beneath you? Literally and figuratively, I suppose.” One side of her mouth curled as she enjoyed her double entendre.

“I thought I’d made it clear in the past that I wouldn’t tolerate you speaking that way about Elizabeth. She has far more class than you could ever hope for. And as for your so-called breeding, I haven’t noticed it doing you much good.”

She lifted her chin with a petulant air. “I can’t believe you’d waste your time with a little piece of fluff like that when you could have a woman of substance.” She glanced at her hands, polishing her ostentatious ruby ring with her thumb.

“Such as you, I suppose.”

“Yes, though when you behave this way it makes me question why I’d want you.”

“For me, there’s no question. I want nothing to do with you, Caroline. I’ve told you that before, but somehow it never registers.” He turned to leave the library. “This conversation is pointless. I’ll let you get back to whatever you were shredding.”

“Don’t you walk away from me!”

Against his better judgment, William turned back to face her. The relentless Southern California sun streamed in a window and glinted off her hair, its highlights the color of new-minted pennies. She moved around the desk and approached him, her aggressive perfume wrestling with the odor of pipe tobacco. He stepped away, finding it difficult to breathe the air saturated by her presence. “What do you want?” he asked, hands in his pockets again.

“Why can’t you see that you don’t belong with Elizabeth? You have everything—wealth, breeding, fame—and you’re going to squander it on some little nobody who used her body and a pair of ‘fine eyes’ to lure you into bed?”

“You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” He was surprised by the calm settling over him like a blanket. Her rudeness had become so outrageous that it didn’t even merit his anger.

“I know she went to bed with you in New York. I bet your grandmother had a fit.”

“What Elizabeth and I did or didn’t do in New York is none of your business. And considering your behavior in New York, particularly the way you tried to pass off her gift as yours, I’d advise you to drop the subject.” He was becoming angry again, reminded that Caroline had figured in his previous estrangement from Elizabeth as well as the current one.

“Whatever I did was for your sake. She was leaving New York. You hadn’t returned her phone calls, so she showed up at the hospital with that orchid. It was nothing but a desperate ploy to hold onto you. You were better off without her.”

A germ of an idea, born of something she had just said, plucked at his sleeve, but he brushed it away, too annoyed at Caroline to humor it with his attention. “I don’t know where you got the idea that my concerns are any business of yours. You scarcely know Elizabeth, you think you know me but you don’t, and yet you presume to decide what’s best for me.”

“As little sense as you have about women, you need someone taking care of these things. You’re as bad as my brother.” She smoothed her hair in a preening gesture and leaned against the desk, crossing one ankle over the other in an obvious attempt to draw attention to her long, tanned legs.

William ignored the display, staring into the fireplace while he searched for something to say. He had felt a painful twinge at her mention of Charles, but his ego soon stormed the battlefield, pennants waving. His interference in Charles’s personal life had been an entirely different matter. However misguided his actions, his intentions had been good. There was no comparison to Caroline’s manipulative behavior.

The timid thought tapped his arm again, and again he tried to deflect it, but this time it held fast. His eyes traveled to her face, eyeing her closely to gauge her reaction. “How did you know Elizabeth called me while I was in the hospital?”

Caroline’s gaze flicked to the side and then back. “You must have mentioned it in August when you scolded me about that misunderstanding with the orchid.”

William shook his head at the far-fetched suspicion forming in his mind, but he couldn’t seem to dislodge it. “You knew she left at least two messages, because you just referred to her calls, plural. And somehow you know that I didn’t return the calls, which I didn’t because I never got the messages. And that makes me wonder, how do you know all that? Did you find a way to listen to my phone messages?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. How could I have gotten into your cell phone voicemail?” She rolled her eyes, blowing a gust of air through her nose.

“I never said the calls were on my cell phone,” he replied in a smooth voice, his dark eyes full of danger. “How could you know that, unless you heard them?”

She stared at him in silence, her chin jutting out.

He went on talking, as much to himself as to her. “And if you were able to hear them, that means …” He shot her a look of disbelief. “How did you get my voicemail password?”

“You made it easy enough,” she hissed. “Who writes their password on a Post-It attached to the phone, for God’s sake?”

“So you listened to her messages, and then you deleted them.”

“Yes, I did it. Is that what you wanted to hear?” She gesticulated wildly, her blood-red lacquered nails so long they reminded William of a hawk’s talons. “You shouldn’t let a little leech like that attach herself to you. But like all men, you’re too busy thinking with your head—and I mean the little one in your trousers—to be able to make a sensible decision, so you need a woman to step in and take care of things.”

William thought of the misery he had endured, deprived of Elizabeth’s affection and support during his long summer of convalescence, and a murderous rage built in his heart. “You miserable bitch,” he whispered. “Do you have any idea how much you disgust me?”

“But I did it all for you. I knew that sooner or later you’d see that.”

“Listen carefully, because these are the last words I plan to say to you.” He spoke in clipped tones, his hands formed into fists that trembled with fury barely held in check. “Nothing could ever induce me to get involved with you. Nothing. The only reason I ever paid you any attention in the first place was for Charles’s sake. It’s a cliché, but even if you were the last woman on earth, I wouldn’t touch you.”

“William—” Her bravado finally exhausted, her voice became a shrill whine.

“Stay away from me, and above all, leave Elizabeth alone. If you do anything else to hurt her …” He shook his head. “I’m not a violent man, but I might be compelled to make an exception in your case. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need some fresh air.”

He turned abruptly and stalked out of the library. Caroline, apparently gifted with a rare dose of good judgment, didn’t follow.

 

Charles merged onto the 405 and accelerated. The car shot forward, its powerful engine growling. “I’m going to miss this car,” he said, sighing.

Porsche Boxter “Miss it?” William asked, frowning. “Why?” It was a Porsche Boxster convertible in gleaming black, still exuding faint whiffs of the intoxicating new-car smell that lures so many shoppers to exceed their transportation budgets. Charles had allowed William to drive it that afternoon on the way to the beach, and although it didn’t have the raw muscle of the Ferrari, it was sleek and fast and handled beautifully.

“I’m going to have to sell it and buy something more sensible.” It was too dark to see Charles’s expression clearly, but his voice was mournful. “The insurance alone would probably break me.”

“You don’t have even a small trust fund that you control?”

“Not till I’m 35. Until then I’m too young to be, um, trusted.”

William rolled his eyes at the bad pun and gave silent thanks to his ancestors, who hadn’t placed such restrictions on his various financial resources. “There’s no chance your assets could get tied up in this investigation, is there?”

Charles shuddered. “God, I hope not. The search warrants were aimed just at Caro, the poor thing.”

“Do you think she’s guilty?”

“She hasn’t told me anything, but I don’t think she’d be so frightened if she were innocent.”

William had never imagined, when he vowed that morning never to sympathize with Caroline again, that his promise would be tested so soon. He and Charles had returned from an afternoon at the beach to find the house in an uproar. Federal agents had arrived not long before with a search warrant for all papers related to Caroline’s financial dealings, while another group of agents carried out a similar search at company headquarters.

“She seemed to know in advance that they might show up,” William mused.

“Yeah.” Charles zipped into the left lane to pass a convoy of trucks. “The SEC filed insider trading charges against her broker yesterday morning. Once that happened, they were bound to investigate some of his clients.”

William hadn’t heard any mention of the broker until now. Given the chaos in the house, it had been difficult to piece together the entire story. “So he gave her insider tips?”

“That’s what they’re saying. But maybe she thought his tips were above board, and she was just an innocent dupe.”

An innocent dupe wouldn’t have been shredding paper, but William hadn’t shared that story with Charles. “She was waiting for a phone call yesterday at the hospital, I suppose from him?”

“Could be. But obviously Bruce was busy with the authorities.”

William’s eyebrows shot up. “Bruce?”

Charles glanced at him and shrugged. “Yeah, Bruce Gormley, her broker. Why?”

“She mentioned someone named Bruce at the airport a couple of weeks ago, but she made it sound like their connection was rather intimate.”

“Not a chance. She’s known him since college. He’s nuts about her, but she treats him like … a lapdog, I guess.”

“And he’s her broker.” William smirked, remembering her declaration of eternal devotion to the mystery man.

“I must say, she’s been singing his praises lately. You know that huge ruby ring she has? She’s always telling people that she owes it to Bruce, because she bought it with the killing he helped her make in the market. I wonder if the agents will seize the ring?”

William coughed. He knew that Charles was sincerely worried about Caroline, and he felt a twinge of guilt for enjoying her predicament … but only a twinge. “I hope this mess doesn’t cause you or your mother any harm. Are you still going to San Francisco tomorrow?”

“Unfortunately, no. I called Jane before we left and pushed it back to the weekend. Mom is upset, and word has leaked out. A reporter from the Times called the house while you were packing. But things ought to be calmer by Friday evening, at least calm enough that I can get away for a day or two.”

“Does Jane know why you’re coming?”

“It seemed too hard to explain on the phone. I just told her I’d be in town and wanted to see her.”

Charles’s timidity amused William for a moment, but then he remembered his own hesitation to declare himself to Elizabeth when he had first arrived in San Francisco. “I assume you’ll stay at the house.”

“I don’t know. I’d hate to be there and have Federal agents break down the doors looking for evidence against Caro. I thought it might be smarter to stay away this trip. Besides, if things don’t go well with Jane, that’s the last place I’ll want to be.”

“You’re welcome to stay at the penthouse.”

“Actually, that would be great, if you don’t mind.” From Charles’s immediate acceptance, it appeared that he’d been hoping for the invitation.

“I’ll double check with my aunt, though I’m sure it&srquo;ll be fine with her, and then I’ll call Mrs. Hill. You can work out the details with her.”

William’s offer held a small measure of self-interest. If Charles stayed at the penthouse, it would be evident to Jane, and, more importantly, to Elizabeth, that the visit was taking place with William’s knowledge and endorsement.

“Charles, while you’re there …” William hesitated, but then forced himself to continue. “There’s something you’ll undoubtedly find out about.”

“About you and Lizzy having problems?” Charles glanced over, and even in the dim light William saw the sympathy on his friend’s face.

“How did you find out?”

“Jane didn’t know you were down here visiting till I mentioned it. I thought it was strange, that Lizzy wouldn’t have told her. Then she asked how you were doing, and she said a few other things, and I figured it out. She assumed that you’d already told me.”

“Sorry. I haven’t felt like talking about it.”

“I’m sorry, Will. I wondered why you were willing to leave her to come down here and hang out with me.”

“I probably couldn’t have left if she hadn’t sent me away. She’s my life.” William was embarrassed when these words slipped out of his mouth, but he couldn’t deny them. “And I don’t know how to get her back.”

“Look, tell me to mind my own business if you want, but what happened? I thought you two were doing great.”

“She found out some things I’d done that upset her. Part of it was the advice I’d given you about Jane.”

“Is that why you decided to talk to me about it?”

“It was the only way I could think of to atone. But also, I just found out on Sunday that I might have been mistaken about the pre-nup.”

“How?”

“From something Jane said.”

“You know, I’ll bet Lizzy will forgive you if Jane and I get back together.”

“That wasn’t the only problem,” William said in a voice so low that Charles had to ask him to repeat it.

“Give her a little time. She probably just needs to get over being mad.”

“That’s what Jane said.”

“Then listen to her. She’s a wise woman. But just in case, let’s talk strategy. Hmm … how can we get around the ‘no visits, no talking’ rule? Jane told me about that.” Charles frowned, licking his lips, and then smacked the steering wheel, causing the horn to sound briefly. “I’ve got it! Send her an e-mail.”

“That’s too impersonal.” William knew his views were old-fashioned, but he didn’t care.

“Seems like it’s better than nothing. Anyway, if I get a chance, I’ll put in a good word for you. After all, I’m looking forward to giving a smart-ass toast at your wedding, reminding you that Jane and I always thought you and Lizzy would hit it off.”

“Yes, I know. You’ve only mentioned it a few hundred times.” William glanced at his watch. “It’s getting late. Are we almost there?”

“Just a few more minutes,” Charles said. “Let’s see what the Porsche can do about getting us there a little faster.” Charles pressed the accelerator, and the car leapt forward.

 

Three hours later, William’s seat was the sole island of light in the first class cabin. Soft jazz music filled his ears through his noise canceling headphones, which he considered an essential travel accessory. His fellow travelers were either sleeping or trying to do so, and he supposed he would have to follow their example at some point during the long flight. They were due to arrive in Sydney early in the morning, affording him time for little more than a shower and a change of clothes before he embarked on a day of rehearsals.

He shut off his light and stared out the window. The ocean was somewhere below, obscured by thick clouds turned a dull pewter by the sliver of moon riding above them. He absorbed the view while the events of the past four days slid in and out of focus, a kaleidoscope of images.

Charles had said something, addressed to his father, that had set off a persistent echo: “The only thing that matters is that I’m done taking orders from you. The cost is too high, and I can’t do it anymore.” The words expressed a sentiment similar to Elizabeth’s: “I love you, but I don’t know if I can sacrifice my identity and my free will to be with you.”

He needed her, yet he had promised to keep his distance, and now that the promise was made only the most soul-wrenching desperation would induce him to break it. He knew he would be miserable without her, but not desperate … he hoped.

He remembered Charles’s suggestion of an e-mail message. The idea seemed within the bounds of his promise, as long as he didn’t bombard her with messages. But how could he pour out his heart to a soulless machine? And would she feel the power of his words, delivered in an impersonal electronic form? No, computers were not a proper tool for sending a love letter.

Of course. He almost laughed at himself for forgetting that, before cell phones and computers, people had still been able to communicate.

He switched on his light and rooted through his briefcase, frowning at the yellow lined pad that seemed so inappropriate to the task. But it was all he had, and he could recopy his words onto better paper later if he chose. He removed his favorite gold pen from his briefcase and rolled its cool polished surface between his fingers, his mind already juggling a thousand things he wanted to say.

Her face floated before him as he set the tip of the pen to the paper and wrote two simple words:

“Dearest Elizabeth,”