Friday, 3:00 am (Sydney) / Thursday, 11:00 am (New York)

William switched off the lamp beside the piano and shuffled through the darkness blanketing the living room, guided by the anemic light trickling through the bedroom doorway. The hour he had spent playing Bach had been therapeutic but he wasn’t ready to sleep until he made a phone call. The bed bounced slightly as he plopped down on the edge of the mattress.

“Hello? I mean, William Darcy’s office.”

William had expected to hear Sonya’s brisk tones, not a husky male voice. “Richard? Is that you?”

“Will? How the hell are you?”

It had been more than a week since the cousins had spoken, and William’s insides twisted with an unexpected wave of homesickness. “I’m fine.”

“I don’t have a firm grasp on this time zone thing, but isn’t it late over there?”

“It’s a few minutes after three.”

“In the afternoon?”

“No, the morning.” William stifled a yawn.

“What are you, nuts? You should be in bed, old man, and preferably not alone.”

“I couldn’t sleep so I practiced for a while. Then I realized I could catch Sonya before lunch if I called now.”

“’Fraid not. She’s gone for the rest of the week, remember?”

Damn. William had forgotten about Sonya’s brief vacation. She was helping her mother move into a retirement community … perhaps in Charlotte, or maybe Charleston. Or was it Charlottesville? He hadn’t been paying much attention when she’d explained. “She reminded me the last time we talked, but I must have my days confused. Did she recruit you to man the phones?”

Richard snorted. “Yeah, right. I’d be one place below a chimp from the zoo on her list of candidates. And that’s just as well, because the chimp would be more likely to volunteer. No, I was sitting here going through the file for the New Year’s Eve concert when the phone rang, and I thought I’d make myself useful for a change.”

chimpanzee“The New Year’s Eve concert? Is there a problem?”

“No. I just thought I’d ride shotgun on the trip if it’s okay. I promise to keep myself busy; I know you and Lizzy won’t want me underfoot.”

William sighed. He could only hope that would be an issue. At some point he might have to tell Richard about Elizabeth … but not yet. Richard’s clumsy sympathy would only make things worse.

“Well, that idea certainly dropped like a rock,” Richard said. “I guess I’d better make other plans for New Year’s.”

William hadn’t realized that he’d been silent for so long. Flustered but determined to hide it, he kept his tone light-hearted. “You’re welcome to come, but isn’t the Kennedy Center a little dull for your tastes, especially on New Year’s Eve? I seem to recall something about you ringing in the year with not one, but two female companions last December.”

“Twins, in fact.” Richard sighed with a theatrical air. “That was one for the record books, but I’m ready to try something different. I thought maybe I’d invite Charlotte to fly out to Washington and join us.”

“I see,” William said, raising an eyebrow. “Is there something I should know about the two of you?”

“As I’ve told you before, we’re just having fun.”

It was, as usual, a non-denial denial. After Elizabeth had suggested that Richard and Charlotte might have feelings that they were unwilling to admit, he’d noticed that Richard’s conversations all tended to curve around to include Charlotte, a symptom William recognized in himself.

“So, old man, did you just call to shoot the breeze, or do you need something?” Richard asked.

William hesitated, smoothing the sleeve of his silk robe. Sonya understood the basic situation and could be trusted to handle things with tact and subtlety, whereas Richard was … Richard. “I was checking for messages.”

“None that I can see. Nothing written down, and the message light is off.”

“Okay. Thanks.” William sank back against the pillows. She wasn’t going to call, and the sooner he accepted it, the better.

“What day is it out there?”

“Friday,” William answered, his eyelids drooping. He could almost feel his remaining energy draining away. “My last concert is tonight and I leave for home tomorrow morning.”

“From what I hear, everything’s going well?”

“Just great,” William answered, unable to squeeze the bitterness out of his voice. “Couldn’t be better.”

 

Thursday, 9:30 am (San Francisco) / Thursday, 11:30 am (New York) / Friday 3:30 am (Sydney)

Elizabeth hung up the phone, gnawing her lip. Why did I wait so long?

oncidium orchidShe studied the orchid on her desk. It was the one William had given her the weekend of their argument, its slender stem inclined toward her with an air of mute comfort. She had brought it to work today as a talisman. “Fine lot of good you’ve done me,” she grumbled, scowling at the plant.

Clammy, insubstantial fingers seemed to tickle the wispy hairs on the back of her neck, but it was only the morning air, thick with moisture as it rolled through the open window. She shuddered and jumped to her feet, bumping her desk in the process. The orchid’s fragile pink blossoms bobbed their heads as though gossiping among themselves about her predicament.

“If you’ve got suggestions, don’t be shy.” She closed the window and dropped into her chair again. “Heaven knows I could use the help.”

She had thought that reaching William would be straightforward; she would simply call his cell phone. But in his letter, and also in his farewell before he left San Francisco, he had asked her to call Sonya. A casual conversation with Warren Black, who had traveled extensively, provided a likely explanation: Australia’s cell phone networks were incompatible with many U.S. phones. She had called William’s number late last night anyway, her fingers trembling as she dialed, but failed to connect with him.

Her next idea had been to call Sonya last night, soon after arriving home from Roger’s apartment. But here, things got complicated. Given William’s obsession with privacy, he had almost certainly kept their estrangement a secret from his family. Sonya probably knew at least some sketchy details since he was using her as a go-between, but someone else might overhear a recorded message. They would wonder why Elizabeth needed help reaching William in Australia, and that might lead to awkward questions he would want to avoid. It would be better to call during the day, when Sonya was likely to answer the phone herself.

She had arrived at school this morning prepared to make the call, her nerve endings jangling with a volatile blend of excitement and trepidation. But this morning Sonya’s voicemail greeting had informed callers that the offices of William Darcy and the Darcy Arts Trust were closed until Monday. Messages could be left, but they would not be answered until then.

“And there you have it,” she remarked to her attentive floral audience. “I’ve really blown it, haven’t I?” She pursed her lips and glared at the blooms, daring them to begin nodding again.

She had left a message asking Sonya to call her “to answer a question.” It was vague enough not to arouse suspicion, but if Sonya happened to check messages she would certainly return the call.

Elizabeth had even tried to find William on her own. Armed with a list of the best hotels in Sydney gleaned from Internet research, she had begun placing international calls on her cell phone, shuddering as she thought about her next phone bill. The difficulty was that hotels often listed William under a false name to protect him from the occasional persistent fan. Elizabeth had tried asking to speak to Mr. Darcy, Mr. Fitzwilliam, Mr. Lawrence—in case Sonya had used her own last name—and even Mr. Reynolds, but her efforts had yielded nothing but a sheet of paper with a thick black line scratched through each hotel’s phone number.

Time was running short. She was to leave for Miami early the next morning, meeting the Gardiners there and continuing on to Barbados. William would be traveling soon himself, making the long trip to New York. While they were both mobile, like two knights hopping around a massive chessboard, reaching each other would be even more of a challenge.

She fixed her gaze on the orchid. He tried so hard to show me he was sorry. But she hadn’t been ready to hear himt then. She ran a gentle finger along the petals of a blossom, both of them flinching when the phone rang. Her heart jittered in her chest as she reached for the receiver, but the voice she heard wasn’t Sonya’s … nor was it his.

“Hello, Elizabeth. It’s Bill Collins.”

Had he been in the room and not on the phone, the frost in his tone would have killed the orchid instantly. It had been this way ever since his unsuccessful romantic overture eight days before. She wouldn’t have cared had it not been for their frequent awkward meetings in the hallways at school. The most recent Golden Gate Jazz rehearsal had been marred by the tension as well, and she feared that one of them would have to leave the group if things didn’t improve soon.

“Hello, Bill,” she said, rolling her eyes for the benefit of the watching orchid blossoms.

“I’m calling on behalf of Dr. de Bourgh,” he said stiffly. “She would like to see you in her office.”

Elizabeth had been expecting this. When she had delivered her letter of resignation to the Dean’s office on Monday morning, she had learned that Catherine was out of town until Thursday. And here it is, Thursday morning. I guess I should be flattered to be so high on her priority list. “I’ll be right there.”

“Oh, no,” Bill replied in a lofty tone. “She’s far too busy right now. She wishes to see you at five thirty. She will have dispensed with her more important business by then.”

Elizabeth agreed to the appointment, her lips twitching. She hung up the phone and hauled a stack of student papers out of her briefcase. She wasn’t in the mood to grade them, but taking them to Barbados was an even more unattractive prospect.

 

Elizabeth stepped into the reception area of the Dean’s suite at precisely half past five. The receptionist’s desk was unoccupied; the secretarial staff had apparently gone home for the day. The overhead lights were off, the area illuminated only by the glow of two floor lamps. The effect would have been peaceful if not for Catherine’s emphatic voice echoing through the hallway. She was apparently on the phone, intoning each word as though it were soon to be inscribed on a stone tablet.

Seeking distraction, Elizabeth studied the coffee table, its clean lines and glass-covered latticework top suggesting an Asian influence. But it would require more than a piece of furniture to take her mind off the coming battle. Whether or not Catherine intended to interfere with her departure, it was likely that the gloves would come off at last. Elizabeth wasn’t frightened, but adrenalin coursed through her veins, girding her for combat and setting her heart pounding so hard she thought it might knock her off her feet.

Journal of MusicologyJudging from the thick silence that soon descended, disturbed only by the distant whoosh of evening traffic, Catherine’s call must have ended. Elizabeth sat tall and proud in a sleek but remarkably uncomfortable armless chair, flipping absently through a recent copy of the Journal of Musicology. A suspicion that the delay was intended to rattle her only strengthened her resolve to remain calm.

At last Bill Collins appeared, sporting his newly habitual injured expression. He nodded, offered a cold and uncharacteristically terse greeting, and escorted her down the shadowy hallway to the Dean’s office.

snow leopardCatherine was enthroned behind her elegant Chippendale desk, grasping a sheet of paper which appeared to be Elizabeth’s letter of resignation. A snow leopard pin, which Catherine nearly always wore, glittered on her lapel, its green jeweled eyes emitting a sinister gleam. “Ms. Bennet,” she said coldly, glaring at Elizabeth over the top of her reading glasses.

“Dr. de Bourgh,” Elizabeth replied in an equally chilly tone. Two could play the name game. She stepped close to the desk, attempting to exploit her height advantage.

Catherine rose to her feet and fixed her eyes on Bill Collins, who lurked just inside the door. “Collins, what do you want?”

“I thought you might—that is, in case you wanted me to assist you in any way, I could—not that I consider you incapable of handling this matter on your own, because of course no one could think that—but perhaps I might be of service in some small way?”

biwaElizabeth knew it was unkind to enjoy his flustered stream of gibberish, but she hadn’t forgiven him for impugning William’s honor, nor for his unintentionally insulting remarks about her. She pressed her twitching lips together and fixed her eyes on the ornate biwa, a Japanese lute, mounted on the wall behind Catherine’s desk.

Catherine was not similarly amused. “I asked you to fetch Ms. Bennet, and you have done so,” she snapped, glowering at Bill. “Go back to your office, and shut the door on your way out.”

Bill clasped his hands together in an obsequious gesture. “Of course, Dr. de Bourgh.” Just before he turned to go his eyes met Elizabeth’s, and she was surprised to see a faint note of sympathy there.

Once he was gone, Catherine’s steely gaze skewered Elizabeth again. “Now, as for you, Ms. Bennet …” She slapped the sheet of paper, which was indeed the resignation letter, onto the desk. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I would have thought the meaning was clear,” Elizabeth said, summoning up a haughty stare of her own. “I’m leaving at the end of the semester.”

“You have a contract for the entire school year.” Catherine seated herself and deposited her reading glasses on the desk with what seemed like unnecessary force.

“I have excellent reasons for resigning, as you know quite well.”

Catherine sniffed. “Take a seat, and we will discuss these so-called reasons of yours.”

Elizabeth hesitated, in no mood to follow orders, yet it seemed foolish to pick a fight over the use of a chair when more controversial matters loomed. She sat down, squaring her shoulders in a gesture she belatedly recognized as a sign of William’s influence. It bolstered her courage almost as though he sat by her side, and she turned an insolent stare on Catherine, challenging her to fire the first salvo.

She didn’t have long to wait. “Don’t try to play the injured party,” Catherine snapped. “You managed to pull the wool over my eyes for a time, but I’ve learned all about your tawdry affair with William Darcy.”

“Tawdry?” Elizabeth rolled her eyes and shook her head. “That’s absurd. It’s true that we’ve been dating, but I hardly see what’s tawdry about two single people spending time together.”

“If we were speaking of two unattached people who were suitable for each other, I might agree. But your situation falls short of that description on two counts.”

“I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.” Elizabeth’s imagination was in perfect working order, but she refused to yield an inch of the battleground.

“First of all, William Darcy has an understanding with my daughter.”

“Does he understand that he has an understanding?” Elizabeth asked mildly, her eyebrows raised in a silent challenge.

Catherine’s jaw set in a dangerous line. “Don’t play word games with me, young woman. I won’t tolerate it.”

“Since William feels free to be with me, he must not consider himself committed elsewhere. From what he tells me, he and Anne are friends, nothing more.”

Catherine’s eye twitched and she adjusted a photograph on her desk. “His grandmother and I have intended that they should marry since they were children. But he and Anne have unfortunately seen little of each other in recent years. His visit to San Francisco this fall was intended to give them the opportunity to become reacquainted, which would have happened had you not interfered.”

Elizabeth blew a stream of air through her nostrils. “It seems to me that this is William’s business and Anne’s, not yours. Besides, my absence wouldn’t have guaranteed that William would choose to spend more time with Anne.”

“It most certainly would have. He’s always been conscientious about his duty to his family until now. His grandmother is horrified at his behavior, as am I. It’s clear to us that you’ve used your wiles to lure him into forgetting what he owes the Darcys and my daughter, just as you lured him into buying you a position here, at a prestigious institution far beyond anything you could have achieved on your own merit, and at a salary that’s an insult to our more deserving faculty.”

“I didn’t lure him into anything.” Elizabeth jumped to her feet, every muscle trembling with indignation. “I only found out what he did a short time ago. That’s why I submitted my resignation.”

“Young woman, sit down.” Catherine’s eyes were like black ice, every word a mallet striking the desk.

After a moment’s consideration, Elizabeth lowered herself stiffly into her chair. Catherine was studying her carefully, no doubt seeking a weakness to exploit. “Dr. de Bourgh,” she said, forcing her voice to sound cool, “believe what you like, but I didn’t know—”

Catherine made a dismissive gesture. “William and Collins both told me you were ignorant of the arrangement until recently. Obviously you and William have gone to some trouble to get your stories straight. As for Collins, you’re a convincing actress. I’m sure it was a simple matter of fluttering your eyelashes and feigning surprise when he showed you the contents of your file.” A speculative light shone in Catherine’s eyes. “Or did you give that weak-minded fool something more intimate in order to buy his sympathy?”

“How dare you?” Elizabeth grabbed the chair arms, her knuckles white with the force of her grip, to keep from leaping to her feet again.

Catherine continued, ignoring Elizabeth’s indignation. “But it would make no difference if you were telling the truth. Whether or not you asked William to do it, you manipulated him to a place where he considered such an outrageous act appropriate.”

“If you considered his offer to fund my position so outrageous, why did you accept it?” Elizabeth eyed Catherine defiantly.

“I had grave doubts, I assure you; however, I thought it unwise to antagonize one of the conservatory’s major benefactors by refusing his generosity, however misguided it might have been. But don’t try to shift the focus off your own actions, Ms. Bennet. My mind is made up about you. It disgusts me to see a woman using her body to advance her career. Such behavior hurts other women who refuse to stoop to immorality for personal gain.”

Elizabeth’s arms could barely hold her in her seat. “And you’ve reached this conclusion based on what? You scarcely know me, yet you’re willing to accuse me of selling myself to get what I want. I presume you’re a mind reader as well as a musician?”

“It scarcely requires clairvoyance to recognize a scheming woman using a wealthy man’s weaknesses against him. There’s no other explanation for William’s utter disregard for everything—his family’s reputation, his personal honor—in consorting with someone so utterly unsuitable.”

“You can’t possibly hold such an antiquated attitude.” Elizabeth sternly repressed her own insecurities on the subject of their social equality, lest Catherine pounce at the slightest scent of doubt. “You make it sound like I grew up in a brothel or was raised by wolves. My father is a manager at Hewlett-Packard. I have a master’s degree and a sister who has her own law practice. There’s no dishonor in any of that.”

“Perhaps not, but I notice you don’t mention your mother. I’ve been told that she’s uneducated and vulgar. And I’ve heard about your youngest sister. I understand she works, if that word is even appropriate, at a restaurant where she does little more than flaunt her body for the titillation of the male patrons, so it’s very apt that you mentioned a brothel. You can’t have any affection for William if you expect him to debase himself by associating with such people.”

Elizabeth sprang to her feet like a fierce jack-in-the-box. “That’s enough. You’ve insulted my abilities, my morals, and now my family. There’s only one thing I want to hear from you, and that’s whether or not you’re going to try to stop me from leaving the conservatory. After all, why would you want me to stay, since you disapprove of me so much?”

Catherine rose as well, her oversized personality adding several inches to her diminutive frame. As she moved her perfume wafted across the desk, its expensive scent infused with the faint tang of almonds. “No, I won’t interfere,” she said with obvious resentment. “I can’t, as you know quite well already. William has made that impossible.”

“What are you talking about?”

Catherine rolled her eyes. “Are we truly going to play out this charade, as though you’re ignorant of the insolence he showed me before he left for Australia? Very well. If I dismiss you should you wish to stay, or if I attempt to block your departure should you choose to leave, he threatens to withdraw his foundation’s support of the conservatory.”

“Oh?” Elizabeth could almost feel the room tilt as power shifted to her side of the desk.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, young woman. I’ve spoken to his grandmother, who could no doubt prevent such spiteful and unprofessional behavior on his part. But I prefer not to start a fight inside the foundation’s board of directors. It might reflect poorly on the conservatory, and you aren’t worth that risk. Besides, as you point out, you are not someone I care to have associated with this institution.”

Elizabeth brushed this latest insult aside; it wasn’t worthy of a response, not now that William had handed her such an easy victory. “Then it sounds like my departure is the best thing for both of us. Will you be able to accommodate my voice students with other teachers next semester?” It was her greatest concern about leaving.

“How admirable of you to consider their welfare,” Catherine said, her tone rich with sarcasm. “But, yes, coverage will be available. The only proper thing William did was to pledge to fund the hiring of your replacement for the remainder of the school year, should you choose to leave.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” The generosity of William’s gesture had her blinking back sudden tears. She knew that he had done this for her, to assuage the guilt she might have felt in leaving halfway through the academic year, and to defuse Catherine’s sole legitimate grievance against her departure.

“I suppose you now intend to follow him to New York and continue to be exploit his weaknesses,” Catherine remarked, a haughty tilt to her chin.

“My future plans are none of your business.” Elizabeth lifted her own chin in response.

Catherine snorted, a low, crude sound Elizabeth was surprised to hear issuing from the imperious woman’s throat. “So you think you have the upper hand, do you? Don’t delude yourself. William has always had a healthy appetite for the company of attractive, willing young women, but he grows bored with them quickly.”

“He’s not like that, and you know it. Besides, if he were as weak and fickle as you’re making him out to be, you wouldn’t want him for a son-in-law.”

Catherine’s smug expression made Elizabeth want to leap across the desk and grab her by the throat. “All young men go through a phase where they’re vulnerable to the wiles of manipulative women with questionable morals, and William’s fortune has made him an unusually attractive target. But soon he will want more, and then I am confident that he will remember his responsibilities. Take my advice and give him up now, before he casts you aside like all the others.”

Elizabeth wondered how many more ways Catherine could find to accuse her of using sex to entrap William. Considering the truth, it was laughable, but she wasn’t laughing. “I’m amazed at the way you draw these conclusions about my relationship with William when you know absolutely nothing about it. If I choose to continue to be with William, I will do so, and you have no business passing judgment on my choice. He and I are the only people involved.”

“Which shows how little you understand him. His grandmother will never allow him to marry you, if that’s your the goal of your little scheme. She would never allow the Darcy name to be degraded in that way.”

“Degraded?” Elizabeth took a step toward the desk. Her hands were in fists at her sides, her eyes steaming with rage. “I won’t listen to another word of this. You’ve treated me with contempt since the day of my job interview, and I’ve done nothing to deserve it.”

“You most certainly—”

“I’m not finished,” Elizabeth snapped, pointing an angry finger at Catherine and stabbing it forward periodically to emphasize her words. “Furthermore, I will act according to my judgment, for my happiness and for William’s, and I have no interest in your opinions on the subject. I will be leaving the conservatory at the end of the semester, and once I’m gone it’s none of your business where I go or what I do. Now, please excuse me. I have to get ready for my evening class.”

With a curt nod, Elizabeth whirled and stalked out of the room. Catherine’s strident voice followed her, nipping at her heels. “William Darcy is my daughter’s future husband, and I won’t allow you to interfere. You think I can’t stop you, but I have influence with those who can. You will come to regret speaking to me this way, and very soon.”

 

Friday, 4:30 pm (Miami) / Saturday 8:30 am (Sydney)

airport concourseElizabeth considered flinging her cell phone across the concourse, but she was unwilling to risk bruising a fellow traveler. Welcome to Miami. Beware of flying phones! What good was it to have a phone when nobody she called ever seemed to be available?

She had stormed out of Catherine’s office last evening, her muscles quivering with cold rage, and had called Charlotte, but her call had been answered by voicemail. Much later, when Elizabeth’s night class had ended, she had retrieved Charlotte’s message in return: “Well, thank God! It’s about time you got your ass in gear and called William.” Charlotte had dictated Richard’s phone number and then continued. “I think you’re right that Richard doesn’t know what’s going on. He called a few days ago and didn’t mention it, and he loves to gossip. Don’t worry—he won’t hear it from me.”

By then it had been almost ten in the evening, and three hours later in New York, but Elizabeth had risked placing the call anyway, reasoning that for Richard the evening was just getting started. Again she’d heard the lonely sound of four unanswered rings, followed by an invitation to leave a message. She’d done so and headed home to pack her suitcase, her stomach churning with frustration and self-recrimination for waiting so long.

She had called Richard again in the morning, again receiving no answer, and had left her phone turned on until the last possible moment. The notion that an inexpensive hunk of metal could scramble a jumbo jet’s navigation and communication systems was something Elizabeth preferred not to ponder, especially right before take-off, but she had obediently shut off her phone at the flight attendant’s announcement. Five and a half jittery hours later she had lunged for the phone, finding that a message awaited her—finally.

“Lizzy, good to hear from you.” It was Richard’s hearty voice. “Sorry I didn’t call sooner. My phone was in my jacket pocket, and my jacket was … elsewhere both times you called. Anyway, as I’m sure you already know, Will’s at the Park Hyatt. But I guess you need the name he’s registered under. I’m not absolutely sure, but lately Sonya’s been using ‘Edmund Forlini’, so try that.”

That was William’s middle name plus his mother’s maiden name. She wished she’d thought of that herself. At least Richard seemed to have accepted her explanation for needing help: that William had done all the calling until now, and so she hadn’t needed his contact information.

Richard had continued. “I have no clue what time, or even what day, it is in Australia right now—hell, I’m not precisely sure what day it is here—but he must be leaving soon because he’s supposed to be home tomorrow evening. You probably know more about that than I do. Anyway, hope I got you the information in time. Sorry you can’t join us for Thanksgiving, by the way, but I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

Two calls later, one to obtain the Park Hyatt’s phone number, and another to the hotel itself, she found herself standing in the concourse, seething with frustration. ‘Mr. Forlini’ had checked out a short time before and was on his way to the airport for the nearly 24-hour trip to New York.

She stared at the phone cradled in her palm, again fighting the temptation to throw it against something hard if only for the savage pleasure of watching it disintegrate into a shower of small metallic body parts. But it wasn’t the phone’s fault that she had missed William. Only one person was to blame, and she’d stared into the culprit’s pale, tired face less than an hour before in the lavatory on the plane.

monitor screen in the airportElizabeth slipped the phone into her purse and slung her backpack over her shoulder, grunting at its weight. Then, listening absently to a flight announcement in English and Spanish, she approached a bank of overhead monitors to search for information about the Gardiners’ flight from Baltimore. Predictably, it was scheduled to arrive in another concourse. Sighing, Elizabeth turned away from the monitors and joined the mass of humanity streaming down the long corridor.

 

Friday Night (Barbados)

It was scarcely an original thought, but one word echoed repeatedly in Elizabeth’s mind as she stood on her terrace, gazing out into the tropical night: Paradise. The pictures she’d seen hadn’t prepared her for the relentless beauty of the landscape unfolding before her.

foliage in the garden at nightShe leaned against the wrought iron railing, mesmerized. The garden below was a lush jungle of foliage, with artfully-placed lights adding depth of illumination and shadow. It was too dark to distinguish the different types of plants, but their essence filled the balmy air: the rich scent of fertile earth and green, growing things, laced with the sweet tang of ginger and frangipani.

palm trees in the moonlightBeyond the garden a fringe of palm trees jostled one another, their curved trunks stretching toward a sky spattered with stars. And beyond the trees lay the Caribbean Sea, moonlight glinting off its tranquil surface. She strained to hear the water lapping at the beach, but a cheerful chorus of tree frogs performing in the garden drowned out the sound. It was improbably beautiful, as though every movie cliché of a tropical night had been assembled in one place, yet it was entirely real.

moon over oceanA gentle breeze caressed her face, and she thought of a line from her new song: “With you, wind was silk on my skin.” The air was softer in the Caribbean, like the tender touch of a phantom lover. She absently fingered a chain dangling around her neck.

“Lizzy?”

Elizabeth turned and saw her aunt standing in the doorway of her room. “Come in,” she said, smiling.

Madeline Gardiner joined her on the terrace. “Would you believe your uncle is already asleep? But he has to get up early for a breakfast meeting with the Conference Steering Committee, so maybe it’s just as well.”

“I’ve been enjoying the view,” Elizabeth said softly.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?”

bedroom of suite“Unbelievable. I can’t thank you enough for inviting me here.”

The landscape wasn’t the only gorgeous thing within view. Elizabeth had never stayed in such a plush hotel room. She had wandered around in awe taking in the details, from the heavy drapes behind the bed to the antique reproduction dressing table, and that was before she saw the palatial bathroom and the spacious terrace. It occurred to her that William was accustomed to this sort of pampering; he took it for granted, in fact. It made her oddly melancholy to consider that he had never known the joy of unexpected luxury. Then again, he’s also never known the joy of a fifth-floor walk-up with drafty windows and heat that barely works.

“I knew this was a beautiful place,” Madeline said, “but so far it’s exceeding my expectations. Tomorrow we’ll have to take a walk around the grounds before we head off on our adventure.”

Elizabeth grinned. “What’s the plan, General Gardiner?”

Madeline’s attempt at a scowl dissolved into a smile. “There’s nothing worse than a smart-mouthed niece, but I guess I knew what I was getting myself into when I invited you along. I thought we’d drive down the coast to Christchurch Parish. I should warn you, I’m determined to tour every great house on the island or die trying.”

Elizabeth snickered. “I guess I’m going to get a chance to work off the extra ice cream I’ve been eating lately.”

“Stick with me and I’ll whip you into shape. Then, to show I’m capable of mercy, on Sunday morning we’ll hit the spa. And there are a few possibilities for Sunday afternoon, depending on what interests you.”

“Anything you want to do is fine,” Elizabeth answered, only half listening. A couple, hands clasped, stood on the path below, sniffing the blossoms of a night-blooming plant. As she watched they melted into each other’s arms, seemingly wafted together by the breeze.

“Lizzy? Is everything all right?”

Elizabeth nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“No, really,” Madeline said firmly. “You haven’t seemed like yourself today.”

“I’m sorry.” Elizabeth flashed a bright smile. “It was a long travel day, but I’ll be chipper and ready to go in the morning, I promise.”

Madeline shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the problem. You seem distracted and jumpy. Is it about work? Worried about all the things you had to rearrange?”

Elizabeth nearly snatched at that excuse, but in truth it hadn’t been that difficult. “It’s not that,” she said slowly. “I’ve been thinking about William.”

“I wondered if that was the problem,” Madeline said, resting a hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “Would you like to talk about it?”

“I’m fine, really. You must be tired; we can talk tomorrow.”

“I’m not tired in the least,” Madeline said briskly. “Besides, we haven’t had a nice, long talk in ages.”

living room of suiteAfter brief consideration, Elizabeth decided it sounded like a good idea. She followed Madeline into the living room of their two-bedroom suite, and they settled onto the sofa together.

“You already know that he and I had a serious disagreement two weeks ago, right? I think Jane told you that.”

Madeline nodded. “She said he’d left town, and it had really hit you hard.”

“I told him I needed time alone to think, and I made him promise not to call me. And then—I don’t know exactly how to explain. I guess I climbed into a hole and tried to hide from everything and everyone. It took me till a couple of days ago to start thinking straight. I spent most of the last two weeks digging in my heels, refusing to see his side of the situation.”

Madeline’s mouth turned up in a crooked grin. “That’s our Lizzy.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m not good at admitting I’m wrong … but neither is he. Although he did—admit some mistakes, I mean. He sent me a letter from Australia. A wonderful letter, even if a few parts of it made me want to whack him between the eyes with a two-by-four.”

“Only a few?” Madeline’s eyes sparkled with mirth. “So what did you do after the letter arrived?”

“I read it incessantly and agonized over what to do. He did some things that were wrong—and I mean really wrong—and the fact that his intentions were good doesn’t completely make up for that. So I spent a couple of days obsessing about that. Finally I decided I had to call him, because that’s the only way we’re going to work this out.”

Elizabeth went on to explain the steps she’d taken to try to reach William. “It’s so frustrating,” she said in conclusion, “because if I’d started even a few hours sooner, I’d have reached him.”

“And now the suspense is killing you.”

“Which is my own fault. The main thing is, unless he’s changed his mind about me, he’s been hoping to hear from me for days. And since I haven’t called, it would be natural for him to assume I’m still furious with him. And …” Elizabeth sighed. “That means I’ve caused him a lot of pain, and it’s not going to stop till I talk to him.”

“But you must have understood, when you told him not to call you, how hard that would be for him.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and saw his anguished expression as he’d said goodbye. When she opened her eyes, her lashes were damp with tears. “I didn’t think I had any options.” It had been Diane, the counselor, who had helped her to see things more clearly, but her aunt knew nothing about Michael, nor about her recent counseling sessions, and Elizabeth preferred to keep it that way. “Maybe we really did need a time out. Just not one this long. And it’s getting longer with every hour that goes by.”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure the two of you will connect soon. Lizzy, what is that around your neck?” Madeline asked abruptly. “You can’t seem to stop touching it.”

Elizabeth drew the emerald pendant out from under the neckline of her shirt. “It was from him … for my birthday.”

Madeline drew the pendant away from Elizabeth’s chest, lifting it to inspect it. “What a lovely emerald.”

“I had it in my purse during the trip here. The chain is really too long and I’ve heard of jewelry being yanked right off people’s necks in a crowd. I know they say you should leave valuable jewelry at home when you travel, but …” She sighed softly.

“I understand,” Madeline said, releasing the pendant and patting Elizabeth’s arm. “You should probably leave it in the hotel safe while we’re out touring the island, but you can certainly wear it around here in the evenings.”

Elizabeth’s half-smile died quickly as she remembered his refusal to let her return the pendant. He had said, “It’s yours, and it stays here with you … just like my heart.” She cradled the pendant in her hand, licking her lips as she studied it.

Madeline’s voice roused Elizabeth from her reverie. “Does he know you’re spending the holiday down here?”

“I left a message on his cell phone right before I met you at the gate this afternoon. He won’t hear it till he’s back in the States, probably some time tomorrow. I told him the name of the resort.”

“Then I have no doubt he’ll call tomorrow. He must be as anxious to talk as you are.”

“Which leads me to something I need to ask you,” Elizabeth said. “When William and I finally get around to talking …” She paused, pulling a throw pillow from behind her and setting it on her lap. “We’re going to need more than just a phone call to work things out. Or two phone calls … or any number of them. We’re going to need to sit in the same room.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to speak from the heart when you’re close to the person you love,” Madeline said, understanding warming her expression.

“Exactly.” Elizabeth turned to her aunt, her hands splayed across the pillow. “That’s what he wanted to do, when the trouble first happened, but I wasn’t ready and I was pretty stubborn about it.”

“I suppose I could have predicted that when you fell in love, you wouldn’t take the easy way out,” Madeline teased.

Elizabeth laughed. “No, you know me better than that. Really, though, I shouldn’t be making it sound like we fight constantly. We don’t. I’m actually surprised by how compatible we are most of the time. But when things go wrong, they go really, really wrong.”

“It can take time for a couple to learn to communicate, but if you’re both willing to work at it, you can do it. For starters, it sounds like you need to learn to listen to each other.”

“I think so,” Elizabeth said with a sad smile. “He tends to assume he has all the answers. And as for me … drop a nuclear warhead first, ask questions later; that’s always been my strategy.”

“But you’re ready to listen now?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Except I’m supposed to be here till a week from Sunday, and he’ll be in New York for the week. I don’t want to wait that long to talk things out, but like I said, I don’t think phone calls will be enough.”

“Besides which, you miss him and you want to see him.” Madeline tugged at her wedding ring for a moment and then raised her eyebrows. “He’s got a house here; why don’t you ask him to come down for a few days?”

“His grandmother would never let him do that.”

“A hard-core traditionalist about family and holidays, is she?” Madeline asked, grinning. “My mother was that way. Every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas she and your grandmother would battle for custody of Edward and the kids … and me, though I could probably have gotten away with being AWOL as long as I sent the others.”

“It’s partly that, but also, Mrs. Darcy doesn’t approve of me.”

Madeline frowned. “She doesn’t? Then she must not know you very well. Maybe you should go to New York and win her over.”

Elizabeth ran a finger along the pristine satin cording on the edge of the throw pillow. “Actually, that’s what I was thinking of doing. Not because of Mrs. Darcy, but to see William.” She wrinkled her nose. “But the thing is, you invited me here to be your playmate.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Madeline said with the tone of someone who’s accustomed to being obeyed. She brushed a flyaway strand of hair out of her face. “I’ll be absolutely fine.”

“And I won’t go anywhere till I’ve talked to him, so I’d still be here for a couple of days at least, probably almost till Uncle Edward’s conference ends..”

“As I said, don’t worry about me. Should we make you a hotel reservation? Edward and I usually stay at a wonderful boutique hotel in Midtown.”

“Thanks, but that’s covered. I called my friend Sally yesterday to see if she had room for me, if I end up going. She said I’m welcome to the living room sofa.”

“What about clothes? Swimsuits and shorts won’t be quite the thing in Manhattan this time of year.”

“I packed some warm clothes just in case; that’s why my suitcase is so full.” The biggest challenge would be buying a plane ticket on such a busy travel week, but at least she had money—William’s money, in fact—saved from her job.

“Well, dear, if there’s anything Edward and I can do to help, just tell us and it’s yours, though it sounds like you have everything under control.”

“Thanks, Aunt Maddie. And you don’t think it sounds crazy, for me to go tearing off to New York like this?”

“Absolutely not. At least, not if he’s as important to you as I think he is.”

Elizabeth nodded slowly, cradling the pillow in her arms. “He is,” she said in a low voice.

“And you know,” Madeline continued with a sly grin, “there’s another good reason to do this in person instead of on the phone.”

“What’s that?”

“Fighting with your man may not be much fun, but I highly recommend making up.”

Elizabeth smiled down at the pillow in her lap, her face warm.

“I think I’m starting to get a touch of arthritis in my left hand,” Madeline muttered, wincing as she massaged her thumb. “It’s so easy to get rid of gray hair; too bad the other signs of aging aren’t as cooperative.”

Elizabeth stared at her aunt’s hands. They were strong rather than delicate, with square fingers tipped by short, neatly trimmed nails. They were capable hands, a reflection of the supportive, no-nonsense woman who had for years been such a valuable sounding board. She reached out and flung her arms around her aunt’s shoulders. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you so much.”

 

Just past midnight, Saturday night/Sunday morning (New York)

bright sun in a blue skyWilliam opened his eyes, frowning. He was flying, wasn’t he? And doing so without the assistance of a plane. A moment ago he had been in a lazy dive, drifting toward the earth, exulting in the freedom of the crystal blue sky that stretched to infinity in every direction.

And now? He rubbed his eyes and opened them again, and his bedroom swam in front of him. His suitcase stood at attention on the floor beside the bed, and he could almost hear the soft click in his head as awareness snapped into focus.

The trip to New York had been brutal, even in the relative luxury of first class cabins. Nearly 26 hours had elapsed between his departure from his Sydney hotel and his arrival at the foot of the townhouse’s curving staircase, and he had slept for no more than an hour or two along the way. Home at last, he had dragged his suitcase upstairs, too proud to accept Allen’s assistance or even take the elevator, and had collapsed on his bed in a state of trembling exhaustion. He had intended to rest only briefly before unpacking, but a quick glance at the clock confirmed that five hours, not five minutes, had passed since then.

He sat up, yawning and stretching, and grimaced as a kink in his back announced its displeasure. He needed more sleep, but his empty stomach was long on complaints and short on patience. Even more than food, though, he needed a shower. He had taken one that morning in the first class lounge at San Francisco Airport, but that had been before the long ground delay on the stuffy, overheated plane bound for New York.

Shower in William's bathroomWilliam lingered in the shower, rivulets of water streaming over his skin as the powerful spray pummeled his back muscles into a state of blissful surrender and the hot, humid air cleared his sinuses. He might have stayed in the steamy glass-walled compartment for the rest of the night had his stomach not begun to grumble at ever more frequent intervals.

Swathed in a warm robe over his boxers and tee shirt, he crept downstairs, the marble steps chilly against his bare feet. No doubt everyone else was asleep; the townhouse was hushed and still, with only a few scattered lights providing tiny spheres of illumination. He often prowled the house alone at night and usually relished the sleepy peace, as though the house itself snored gently against a pillow. But tonight it was a melancholy sort of quiet. Tonight, he didn’t want to be alone.

He felt a twinge of guilt for offering Rose and Georgiana only a kiss and a perfunctory greeting earlier in the evening. He had intended to sit with them after he finished unpacking, but that was before his bed had held him hostage for hours. There would be plenty of time to atone in the morning, when he would escort them to church and join in the family’s traditional Sunday brunch.

The tantalizing redolence of apples and spice in Mrs. Reynolds’s domain magnified his hunger tenfold. He switched on the light and saw a large plate on the kitchen counter, covered with a slightly damp napkin. A sheet of paper folded into a tent shape stood beside it, bearing his name.

William,

I thought you might wake up hungry during the night, so I left you these sandwiches. There’s also a bowl of soup in the refrigerator. Two minutes in the microwave under full power should have it nice and hot. And you’ll find an apple pie in the pantry; a slice of that might taste good with a glass of milk. If you need anything else, just call upstairs, even if it’s late.

It’s nice to have you home. We’ve missed you.

Mrs. Reynolds had, as usual, anticipated his needs. He grinned at her mention of the milk. She thinks I’m so helpless I can’t even accessorize my own meal.

He devoured the food, his brain idling in quiet contentment. His mind rarely fell quiet, but perhaps he was too tired and hungry for introspection. Soon the sandwiches were gone, the soup bowl was practically dry, and his fork clattered onto the empty plate that had once held a hefty slice of pie.

It didn’t occur to him until he had almost finished rinsing his dishes that he’d never before executed this domestic task at the townhouse. Mrs. Reynolds might faint away at the sight when she came downstairs in the morning. As for Elizabeth, she’d tease him, but he thought she’d be proud of this proof of her influence.

If she cares at all. His smile vanished, replaced by a familiar heaviness in his body and spirits. With a sigh, he dragged himself out of the kitchen and upstairs, stopping at the second floor to check the condition of his office, or so he told himself. If by coincidence he found a message from Elizabeth awaiting him, so much the better.

Darcy mansion staircaseHis attempts to reach her in San Francisco had failed. He had at first intended to show up on her doorstep unannounced, but had lost his nerve and decided that a phone call first would be wise. His flight had landed too early on Saturday morning to call her on arrival, but as soon as he had thought it reasonable he had dialed the condo, connecting only with the answering machine. He had tried her cell phone with equally unsatisfactory results. After some debate with himself he had left messages on both phones. An ambush might be the best strategy, depriving her of time to erect defenses against him, but he couldn’t ignore the possibility that she was awaiting his promised call on his return from Australia. Her pride might require that he make the first move. As for himself, he had little pride left to protect.

In his office, he switched on a lamp and scanned the room. It was unchanged, and the furniture gleamed. Mrs. Reynolds would never let a speck of dust flourish, not even in a room that had seen little use in the past three months.

He wandered around seeking comfort in familiar objects: brushing his fingers over the smooth polished top of the conference table, studying the maps displayed on the walls, setting an antique globe spinning lazily on its axis. He felt oddly detached, as though these were the possessions of a stranger, but he rushed to assure himself that it was a temporary sensation. Things would be better now that he was home.

Home. For his entire life, or at least all the years he could remember, this had been his home, the foundation of his life. His career took him away with regularity but he always returned, and the house always waited, filled with echoes of the past and bonds of the present. Everything and everyone he held dearest had always resided under this roof.

But not anymore. Now he knew why his office felt like the domain of a stranger, why the emptiness of the house felt oppressive instead of comforting. If the cliché were true and home was where the heart was, he was thousands of miles off course. He had never considered that home could be a person, not a place, and it brought with it a flurry of other ideas. His efforts to bring Elizabeth into his world had been misdirected; instead, they needed to build a new world that would belong to them both.

His family and his ancestral home—he grinned ruefully at the arrogance of that phrase—would be a part of that world, of course. But so would hers, something he had never stopped to consider. Perhaps that was what she had been trying to tell him when she sent him away.

His desk blotter was naked, no pink message slips adorning its corners. Pressing his lips together, he moved on to Sonya’s office, tightening the belt on his robe as he walked.

The message light on her phone blinked lazily, as if exhausted by the repetition. His heart thudded, seeming loud enough to wake the entire house. He said a silent prayer of gratitude that the messages could be picked up with the touch of one button: no menus, no complicated technical feats, and no passwords. He pressed the “play” button in a deliberate motion and froze when he heard her voice.

“Sonya? It’s Elizabeth Bennet. The message says the office is closed, but if you get this message could you please call me? I have an important question and I’m hoping you can answer it. It’s Thursday morning and I’ll be at school all day. The number here is—”

He pressed the “stop” button, stabbed “rewind,” and played the message again. He had scarcely comprehended her words the first time, immersed in the sheer pleasure of hearing her voice. This time he paid closer attention. She had a question for Sonya. What did that mean? Perhaps she had planned to ask for his phone number. Or perhaps she just wanted the number of a boutique in the Village. After all, she hadn’t mentioned him in the message. That can’t be it; she said the question was important. He was about to hit “rewind” again when the next message began.

“It’s Elizabeth again, Sonya, calling on Friday afternoon. I tried to reach William in Sydney a short time ago, but he’d already left his hotel. Could you please tell him that I left a message on his cell phone? Thanks.”

His cell phone! He trotted out of Sonya’s office and took the steps two at a time to the third floor. Once in his bedroom, he grabbed his suitcase and flung it on the bed, where it landed with a thud that vibrated through the bed frame and into the floor. Working rapidly, he removed layers of neatly folded clothing and stacked them on the bed, finally reaching the bottom of the suitcase where he had stowed the phone. At least I don’t need a Post-It to remind me of my password anymore. But he discovered a bigger problem: the phone’s battery was dead.

William rolled his eyes and heaved a loud sigh. He might have predicted that the phone would try to thwart him. He had remembered neither to charge it nor to pack the charger when he left San Francisco, and had exhausted nearly all its available power before leaving Los Angeles. It hadn’t mattered till now; the phone had been useless, a high-priced metallic paperweight incompatible with mobile phone standards in Australia.

It wasn’t the first time he’d forgotten his charger. William wasn’t normally forgetful about things, but he suspected that in this case the tendency had passive-aggressive roots, given his disdain for cell phones. Even when he remembered to pack his charger, he sometimes left it behind at a hotel. Sonya had long ago learned to keep a spare charger on hand … and that would be his salvation now.

He bounded downstairs, his feet barely touching the frigid steps, and hurled himself around the corner into Sonya’s office. The third desk drawer he yanked open yielded his quarry, and he hunched down behind her desk to plug in the charger. When the phone powered up and the display flashed its welcome message, he exhaled with relief. Several new voicemails awaited him but he skipped through them, listening to only the first second or two of each until he located the one message that mattered.

“Hi, William. It’s Elizabeth. I’d like for us to talk. I … I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and … well, I’m seeing things differently. I know I … oh, gosh, it’s awkward trying to say this to your voicemail, so … could you please call me? I’m on my way to Barbados right now; I decided to tag along with my aunt and uncle. We’re staying at the Royal Palm Resort, so you can reach me there. I … I hope you’ll call soon.”

William sagged against the desk, almost weak with relief. She had called, and she wanted to talk. That was enough for now. But as he listened to her message again, absorbing more of the words, his definition of “enough” upgraded itself. She wanted to talk, but she had said nothing about reconciling. What if “seeing things differently” meant she didn’t want to be with him anymore? He glanced at the clock on Sonya’s desk, wondering if her hotel’s switchboard would permit him to awaken a guest at this hour of the night.

“William?”

He flinched, dropping the phone on the desk, and turned to see his grandmother standing behind him. “Gran. You startled me.”

Rose Darcy, looking regal as always in her blue velour bathrobe, regarded him with a solemn expression. “You seemed to be deep in thought.”

“What are you doing up so late?”

“I’m afraid sleep has eluded me tonight,” Rose said, pausing for a sigh. “I’ve been listening to you going up and down the stairs.”

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Rose shook her head and almost smiled. “You didn’t. In fact, it’s comforting to hear you, because it means you’re back under our roof. When you’re gone, we miss you.”

“Thank you, Gran.” Coming from his grandmother, this admission was tantamount to a declaration of eternal devotion. “I’ve missed you too. And I’m sorry I disappeared so soon after I arrived home.”

Rose waved away his apology. “You were exhausted from your trip. Georgiana and I understood. But there was something I wanted to discuss with you. I’m concerned about some reports I’ve received from San Francisco.”

William was torn between amusement and annoyance. As happened so often with Rose when she seemed to be in a benevolent mood, the other shoe had just plummeted to the ground. “What kind of reports?” he asked, allowing a warning note to slip into his voice.

“I received two disturbing phone calls from Catherine de Bourgh this week, and we need to talk.”

“Now?”

“I realize it’s late, but we’re awake and we have privacy that we might not enjoy tomorrow. Shall we go into the family room and sit down?”

She had phrased it as a question, but William knew he had little choice. No matter what Catherine had said, this couldn’t be good. “Okay, Gran,” he said, already following her out of Sonya’s office and into the dimly-lit center hall, “let’s talk.”