starry sky“You haven’t dozed off on me, have you?” William glanced at Elizabeth, whose head rested against the back of the reclined passenger seat. He hadn’t heard a sound from her side of the car for several minutes.

“No, I’m just marveling at the stars. Lake Tahoe is the only other place where I’ve seen a sky like this.”

“I know what you mean.” Bajans called the sparsely populated region around Pemberley the Scotland District because of the topographical resemblance. On clear nights on the deserted hilltops, the night sky seemed immense, an inky black expanse teeming with brilliant shards of light.

He pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped, leaning back in the driver’s seat to savor the view. He enjoyed walking or running outdoors under any circumstances, but at Pemberley he derived special peace from the beauty of nature. The music of the planet seemed to ring in his ears as he wandered in the garden or stood on the beach or stared in awestruck silence at the starry sky. He reached for Elizabeth’s hand, his contentment multiplied a hundredfold because she shared it with him.

“Thank you for agreeing to stay for dinner,” she said, twining her fingers with his. “It meant a lot to Aunt Maddie and Uncle Edward, and to me too.”

“I enjoyed it,” he answered, surprised to realize that it was true. Their passionate and playful afternoon had left him in a benevolent mood, and it had occurred to him that attention paid to the Gardiners might reap dividends in family goodwill. Besides, Edward and Madeline were congenial company, or at least they had been after a few awkward minutes. “But what was going on with your uncle? He seemed upset with me at first.”

“He was. I should have warned you but I completely forgot.”

“Why? He kept eyeing me as though he expected me to steal his wallet.”

“Not his wallet,” she said with a quiet laugh. “His niece’s virtue. I got busted this morning trying to sneak back to my room.”

“I see. Well, that explains why he glowered at me the first time I rested my arm behind you on the sofa.”

“I’m sorry. I could tell he was making you uncomfortable.”

“It’s all right. I can see why he was upset.”

“Well, I can’t. I’m not a child anymore.” She blew air through her nostrils, her eyes still trained on the sky. “But I admit, in a way it’s sweet of him. He’s always treated Jane and me like surrogate daughters. The problem is, he’s a strict, protective father.”

“That’s why I understand him. I’m dreading the day when young men start chasing after Georgie. Thank heaven there’s been none of that so far.”

“Are you sure? I know she’s shy, but it wouldn’t be surprising if—”

“No. She’d tell me.”

Elizabeth coughed. “Oh, please. You expect your 15-year-old sister to spill her guts to you or any adult about a crush, or a boyfriend? Well, of course, how silly of me. Because it comes naturally to Darcys to share their innermost thoughts.”

“Georgie has always confided in me.” William pressed his lips together. Elizabeth didn’t understand his bond with his sister.

“Sure, when she was six or seven and wanted Santa to bring her a pony,” Elizabeth retorted. “But she’s turning into a woman. I promise you, there are all sorts of things she’s not telling you.”

It wasn’t the first time they had debated the subject of Georgiana, and William’s jaw tightened, a prickle of annoyance creeping up his neck. He sat up straight and steered the car back onto the road, gravel crunching under the wheels. They drove the rest of the way to Pemberley in uncomfortable silence, neither wanting to spoil their perfect day with an argument. William was relieved to finally turn up the tree-lined drive and see the house looming ahead, a glowing beacon on its solitary cliff.

Entrance to Pemberley He had barely hefted Elizabeth’s suitcase out of the car when the front door swung open. A tall, broad figure stood silhouetted in the light spilling out onto the front steps. “Good evening, Mr. Darcy.” Her voice was warm and rich, flavored with the piquant lilt of the Caribbean.

He led the way through the door and then turned to Elizabeth. “I assume you’ve met Mrs. Shepherd?”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said, giving Pemberley’s housekeeper a warm smile. “She served me the most magnificent breakfast this morning while you were asleep, and her husband gave me a ride back to the hotel.”

Mrs. Shepherd grinned broadly. “You got yourself a sweet girl here, Mr. Darcy. Can I get you anything? Dessert, or coffee maybe?”

“No, you’re free to go. We’ll call you in the morning when we’re ready for breakfast.”

“Den I gone.” Mrs. Shepherd winked at Elizabeth. “Night, Mr. Darcy, Ms. Elizabeth.”

William waited until Mrs. Shepherd vanished into the kitchen and then spoke quietly. “That last thing she said was in Bajan dialect. It’s a slang people use here. She’d never have dared lapse into it if Gran were here. Gran considers it—and I’m quoting her—‘vulgar and overly informal.’”

“Well, I like it,” Elizabeth retorted. “I’d been hearing a slang of some sort spoken around the island, so I asked Mrs. Shepherd about it at breakfast and she taught me a few phrases. She said I probably shouldn’t try to speak it, but I don’t know if I can resist the temptation to work ‘cheese-on-bread’ into a sentence.”

William chuckled. ‘Cheese-on-bread’ was a colorful local exclamation of surprise. He picked up Elizabeth’s suitcase and led the way upstairs. “So that’s why she winked at you? Because she’d been teaching you Bajan slang?”

“Uh huh. She’s a nice woman, and her waffles with coconut syrup are to die for.”

William smiled to himself, marveling not for the first time at Elizabeth’s knack for inspiring instant devotion from his hired help.

Upstairs in his bedroom, he dropped her suitcase with a thud. “Is this thing lead-lined?” he asked, clenching and unclenching his fingers to restore the blood flow.

“I was packing for two trips, one here and another to New York, just in case.” Elizabeth wandered to the balcony doors. They were partway open, the sheer white curtains on either side fluttering in the ocean breeze “Not to change the subject,” she said, “but Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd certainly took it in stride when I materialized in the kitchen this morning. Apparently they’re used to feeding breakfast to strange women and then driving them home.”

He stepped close behind her and grasped her shoulders. “That’s because of Richard. He usually claims one of the guest houses when he’s down here, and he rarely spends a night alone.”

She turned to face him. “But Richard isn’t here right now, and they weren’t the least bit surprised to see me.”

“Lizzy,” he said, brushing a curl off her cheek, “I told you a few weeks ago that you were the only woman who’s ever slept in any of my beds … and that includes Pemberley.”

“I remember. But you were being sweet and reassuring, and you knew I needed to hear that to make me feel more comfortable.” She sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry; I’m being an idiot. Your past relationships are just that—the past.” She drew away from him before he could decide how best to respond, flashing him a quick, awkward smile. “I should unpack my clothes. I can hear them wrinkling in my suitcase.”

He caught her hand to stop her retreat. “I wasn’t just saying what you needed to hear. It was the truth. You still seem to think that before I met you I was some sort of Don Juan. A slightly more principled version of Richard, perhaps.”

“I don’t think that. And I’m not saying you’ve done anything wrong. But you’ve obviously had tons of opportunities, and … well, let’s just say you wouldn’t make a good monk, assuming it required an oath of celibacy.” She pressed her lips together, a smile lurking there that faded almost immediately. “I know it’s irrational, but I hate thinking of you with another woman in your arms.”

“You still don’t understand, do you?” He rested his hands on her shoulders, his thumbs stroking the sides of her neck.

“What?” She slid her hands up his chest.

“That I’ve never experienced anything like this—us, I mean—before.” He bent forward and brushed a soft kiss over her slightly parted lips. “It scares me sometimes how much I want you. You can’t infer anything about my past from the way I turn into a panting, drooling beast every time I’m within a mile of you.”

Their quiet laughter dissolved the tension in the room. She draped her arms loosely around his neck and rose up on tiptoe to kiss him, still smiling. “I surprised myself more than once today, the way I couldn’t keep my hands off you.”

He chuckled and wrapped his arms tightly around her. “You won’t hear me complaining.” He lowered his head, their kiss lingering this time. Then he led her to over sit on the edge of the bed and took her hands in his. “Cara, please believe me. I haven’t been with anywhere near as many women as you seem to think.”

“I know, really I do. Like I said, I know I’m being irrational.”

“But I think I understand.” He lifted a hand to cup her cheek. “If you told me you’d had a dozen lovers before me, I’d say it was fine, that I didn’t care about your past as long as I was the only one from now on. But the truth is, I’d want to kill every one of them.” He paused and shook his head. “No, actually that wouldn’t be enough. I’d want to go into the past and wipe them out of existence. I want to be the only man who’s ever laid claim to any part of you—your body, your heart, and especially your soul.”

She pulled his head down to hers, her lips claiming his with sudden passion. Then she drew back, and he saw that same passion kindling in her eyes. “How can you be so inarticulate sometimes, and then say something so perfect? That’s exactly how I feel. I don’t like to imagine you calling another woman ‘cara,’ or crying out her name in that pleading tone you get in your voice when you’re on the verge of—” She pressed her lips together and glanced at the floor. “Or mumbling, ‘I love you,’ and then falling asleep with your head on her shoulder.”

He raised her hand to his lips. “I haven’t done any of those things with another woman. Sex has been something my body craved from time to time, but that’s all. You’re the only one who’s ever set me on fire.”

They kissed again, lying back on the bed together. “In fact, it’s happening right now,” he murmured. He nuzzled her neck and breathed her in, the tantalizing scent of jasmine enveloping him.

She unbuttoned his shirt slowly, her smile provocative. Her hands slipped inside to stroke his chest, her touch heating his blood. “Should I get a fire extinguisher?” she purred.

“I’m willing to risk it.” He bent his head and covered her lips with his, charging eagerly into the flames.

 

He was running, still running. His lungs burned and sweat drenched his body. But he couldn’t slow down, couldn’t stop. Not till he found it, till it rested safely within his grasp.

It was nearby—he could hear its ethereal song teasing him, urging him on—but fog shrouded his world, the air thick with moisture. At last he caught a glimpse of it through the fog, framed in a shimmering halo of light, and with a triumphant shout he lunged for it. But it slipped between his fingers, gossamer-like, its angelic voice piercing his heart as it flitted away and vanished into the fog.

If only he could run a little faster … He struggled to drag his body through the heavy air, always reaching, always straining toward the voice. But he stumbled and fell to his knees, gasping. The sweet song faded into the distance, leaving him alone and bereft in the desolate landscape.

 

Elizabeth woke to the distant thunder of the ocean blended with the sonorous tones of a piano. She rolled onto her side and reached for William, but her hand found nothing but cool sheets and an empty pillow.

She blinked and peered through the darkness at the bedside clock. It was a few minutes past four. He had mentioned his bouts of insomnia and his tendency to use the piano as a sleep aid, but he’d said it usually happened in times of tension or sadness. The William Darcy who had drifted into an exhausted slumber in her arms a few hours ago had seemed as peaceful and contented as she’d ever seen him.

Elizabeth rummaged through her suitcase, found her satin nightshirt, and slipped it on. Occasional creaking boards announced her progress as she tiptoed downstairs, but the music never stopped. A small brass lamp on a side table in the foyer offered half-hearted illumination to guide her progress. Once downstairs, she followed the sound of the piano, trying to remember which room held the instrument.

William still hadn’t given her an official tour of the house. On her first visit they’d eaten on the patio, after which he’d rushed her directly to his bedroom; tonight the result had been the same, albeit unintentionally. But she had made her own inspection of the first-floor rooms that morning before breakfast, and had understood William’s deep connection to the historic mansion.

Although stately and elegant, Pemberley was not the imposing monument to Darcy family pride she had expected. The rooms were large and airy, with lofty ceilings and plenty of windows framing magnificent vistas of the lawn, the gardens, and the sea beyond. The architect had used curved lines wherever possible, from the circular foyer to the ever-present arches above doorways and windows, framed in polished woodwork. The overall effect was graceful and serene and somehow reinforced a sense of history.

The house had no doubt undergone major renovations in the more than 200 years since its construction, but the hardwood floors bore the faint scars of thousands of footsteps, a mute testament to its heritage. The furnishings, while elegant, had been chosen for comfort as well as style. In short, it was a home, not a bastion of ostentatious splendor like Rosings, best viewed from behind a protective velvet rope.

She found William in a parlor at one side of the house. He sat at the piano, bent slightly forward, every line in his body communicating absorption in his music. Faint moonlight shone in the large windows along one wall, supplying the sole illumination, but his hands knew the keyboard with an intimacy that made eyesight redundant. She shivered as she thought of those hands playing over her body in the darkness, his touch commanding yet exquisitely gentle.

He finished the Rachmaninoff prelude1, his fingers still resting lightly on the keys as the final chord drifted into the darkness. She tried to speak but couldn’t, her voice stilled by his palpable concentration. Instead she took a tentative step toward him. Before she reached him he began to play again. A sweet, plaintive melody2 filled the room. Again she stepped toward him, compelled to touch him.

The music exploded in a torrent of passion, as though William had cried out in agony, and she froze in place. But the tempest soon exhausted itself, giving way to the peace of the first melody, now tinged with regret. And so it continued, serenity battling with distress, introspection with desperate frenzy. At last it ended on a note of quiet pain that seemed to thicken the air around her, filling her eyes with sympathetic tears.

He flinched when she touched his shoulder; apparently he had heard neither her footsteps nor her voice when she spoke his name. She couldn’t see his expression clearly, but even in the near-darkness she sensed the tension in his neck and around his eyes. “I woke up and you weren’t there,” she said softly. “And then I heard you down here.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. The reply sounded mechanical. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“What’s wrong, William?”

He rose to his feet, tightened the belt on his silk bathrobe, and switched on the small lamp on the piano. “Nothing. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I came down here.”

“If nothing’s wrong, why were you playing those stormy pieces?”

“I’m thinking of using them in a recital next month.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “You can’t judge my emotional state from my musical selections. The two are unrelated.”

She brushed aside his evasive reply. “You told me once that when you play late at night you play for yourself, and you pick things that match your mood. Were you lying to me then, or are you lying to me now?”

“You’re calling me a liar?” His voice was soft, but steel flashed in his eyes.

She didn’t rise to his bait, certain that it was an attempt to deflect attention from himself. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said in a soothing tone. “I’m just worried about you. Please, tell me what’s wrong. Whatever it is, let me help.”

His expression was unreadable, his dark eyes hooded, but after a moment he stepped closer and his body brushed against hers. He muttered her name and cupped her face in his hands, his thumbs stroking her cheeks as he stared long and deep into her eyes. He sighed once, a ragged, shaky sound, his body seeming to deflate with its force. Then, with no warning but a flash of heat in his eyes, his mouth came down on hers, insistent and seeking, its urgency making her gasp. The dark, ravenous stranger who had appeared briefly on their first night at Pemberley was back, hungrier than ever.

He dragged her into a tight embrace, his kisses almost savage in their intensity. William had never kissed her like this before, but someone else had, and the excitement rising inside her was tempered with a quiver of fear. Her mind flashed to that long-ago dormitory room, but as the first seeds of panic took root she heard her counselor’s voice: Use your senses to anchor you in the present. She inhaled William’s warm scent and skimmed her hands over his shoulders, seeking details that would hold the ghosts of her past at bay. Soon the unwanted vision faded and awareness flooded her: awareness of William, his body radiating heat, his kisses incendiary.

His touch was different too. He plundered instead of caressing, intent on conquest and not on the tender sharing of pleasure. Her heart protested but her blood simmered in response, awakening a primal hunger that shocked her. She shuddered when he gripped her hips and pressed his body against hers, and she moaned fiercely in response. If he sought to escape the demons pursuing him by setting himself ablaze, she would throw herself on the pyre with him.

William guided her toward the sofa, his mouth still on hers, and yanked open the buttons on her nightshirt. The garment tumbled to the floor, his robe following immediately. He pulled her body against his with feverish haste, his embrace nearly driving the air from her lungs, and then stole her remaining breath with an all-consuming kiss that left her head spinning. She clung to him, the frantic rhythm of her heart seeming to shake her entire body.

Her legs bumped the edge of the sofa. Understanding his purpose, she allowed him to push her down onto her back; then he followed her down. A cold chill washed over her when she found herself pinned in place by a powerful male body in the throes of fierce passion, but again she used her senses to quell her fear. Her hands gripped his shoulders: William’s shoulders, not Michael’s. He raised his head and she stared into his hot, dark eyes: William’s eyes. Michael had never looked at her with such passionate intensity, such a bottomless well of desperate need. “I love you,” she whispered. She had nothing to fear from William. He might teeter on the edge of control, driven there by forces she didn’t understand, but he would never hurt her.

“You’re mine,” he rasped through gritted teeth. “Mine.”

She nodded, her fingers digging into his shoulders, her breaths quick and shallow.

His hands glided over her, mounting a new assault on her senses. “Say it.”

“I’m yours.” Her words trailed off in a breathy moan and she arched her hips as his touch found its mark.

He laid siege to her body, one part of her after another surrendering to the shuddering heat of his touch. He groaned his pleasure when she reciprocated, his breath coming in uneven gasps. Soon she felt him probing between her legs, rubbing himself against her. She cupped his buttocks, pressing him toward her in silent encouragement. He felt wonderful—thick and hard and smooth-skinned. And warm, so warm. Too warm.

She plummeted back to earth, her stomach turning uneasy somersaults. “William, wait.”

He didn’t seem to hear, his eyes shut tightly, his face contorted with pleasure. His muscles tightened under her hands and he grasped her hips, preparing to thrust forward. She raised her voice, pushing against his chest in alarm. “No, William, stop.”

He shook his head in glassy-eyed confusion.

“We can’t, not yet,” she gasped.

He swallowed and a muscle below his eye twitched. His hands still held her hips immobile. “What?”

“You’re not wearing a condom,” she said in a stronger voice. “And as usual, we don’t have one handy.”

He shut his eyes tightly, his jaw muscles working. Then he hauled himself off her and perched on the edge of the sofa. “Damn it!” He hunched forward and buried his face in his hands, his shoulders heaving.

“It’s okay,” she said quickly, shaken by his vehement reaction. “We can go upstairs. Or if you want to stay here, I’ll go up and get one; it’ll just take a minute. Or if you want, I could …” Her words trailed off, silenced by his lack of response.

It was difficult to stifle her astonished questions, to give him time to calm himself. But she forced herself to wait, the silence broken only by the ocean and the staccato rasp of his breathing. As the seconds stretched to minutes, Elizabeth found it an increasing challenge to lie on the sofa completely exposed and not lunge for her nightshirt. Her eyes darted repeatedly to its resting place just out of reach on the floor, but she lay still, one arm draped over her chest and the other covering her abdomen.

Finally she sensed from his slower breathing that he had regained his composure. She sat up and snuggled behind him. “Are you okay?” she asked gently, kissing his shoulder.

He pulled himself from her embrace and rose to his feet. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” he said in a hoarse voice. “My behavior was inexcusable.” He bent down and snatched up his robe, shoving his arms through the sleeves.

She stared up at him, bewildered and even somewhat offended, but her worry on his behalf dominated her other feelings. “It’s okay, Will.” He didn’t seem to notice her intentional use of his nickname. She continued, adopting a breezy tone. “We just got carried away and forgot. We have a tendency to do that, don’t we?”

He swallowed and met her gaze, but he didn’t answer.

“Why don’t we go back upstairs?” she said with a coaxing smile. “I could give you a backrub. It might help you to relax.”

He belted his robe with hands that seemed to be shaking. “I’ll be up soon, but first I need some air.” He strode toward the door.

“No, please, wait.” She jumped to her feet, struggling into her nightshirt.

He stopped in the doorway and turned back. “Please, Lizzy, just let me go. I’m not fit company for anyone right now. Wait for me upstairs.” And he was gone.

A door creaked open and closed in the foyer and the house fell silent, save the distant pounding of the surf against the shore. She shook her head, dazed. First he had flung her onto the sofa and practically ravished her. Then, faced with the prospect of a quick dash upstairs for a condom, he had flown into a rage. William wasn’t the most tolerant of men when things didn’t go his way, but she had never seen him so unreasonable. Frustrated desire alone couldn’t account for his behavior.

Elizabeth rose and walked to the windows, absently buttoning her nightshirt. He wasn’t on the patio, but she could see no further than that in the darkness. She could give him time alone to cool off as he had asked, or she could follow him outside and force him to talk to her. It took her only an instant to decide. Something had cracked him open, perhaps his music, and she had caught a glimpse of something dark and troubling, something he preferred to keep hidden. She needed to find him now, before he sealed the vault encasing his soul.

 

“Elizabeth Marie Bennet, just where do you think you’re going dressed like that? A lady wouldn’t dream of leaving the house in such a state.”

It was a perfect reproduction of her mother’s querulous voice, echoing from Elizabeth’s childhood. In those days her ensemble of choice had been a tee shirt and jeans or shorts, liberally spotted with dirt from the playground. Mrs. Bennet, forever brandishing one of Jane’s pristine hand-me-down dresses festooned with ribbons and lace, had despaired of ever seeing her second daughter looking “like a proper girl.”

Frances Bennet would have collapsed in an apoplectic fit at the sight of Elizabeth now, wandering across Pemberley’s lawn clad in nothing but her nightshirt. But her mother wasn’t there and William needed her, whether he knew it or not.

The grounds were large enough and the night dark enough that she knew she might miss him, especially if he had chosen to walk off his frustrations on the beach. She didn’t know the location of the path leading there, nor was she likely to find it in the darkness. Despite the surfeit of celestial bodies visible in the night sky, only the slim crescent of the moon provided any illumination.

traveler palm She detoured around a majestic traveler’s palm, its leaves rustling lazily in the light breeze, and saw a faint shadow near the cliff. She hurried in that direction and found William on a small terrace she hadn’t noticed before. He sat slumped forward on a bench, his chin resting on his palm as he stared at the horizon.

“William?”

He sat up and turned in her direction. She scrutinized him as she approached, but saw only answering wariness in his eyes. “I thought maybe you’d be down on the beach,” she said as she sat down beside him.

“I considered it,” he said, his voice barely louder than the ocean. “But the path is steep and I didn’t want you to hurt yourself trying to find your way in the dark.”

“You knew I’d follow you out here, even though you asked me not to?”

“I thought you might.” He gave her a sidelong glance, his cheek twitching in what might have been an attempt at a smile. “Obedience isn’t your strong suit.”

“If that’s what you’re looking for, you’d better get a cocker spaniel.” Her expression softened. “But, seriously, I couldn’t just sit inside and wait. If our situations were reversed, wouldn’t you have come out here to find me?”

“Probably not. I’d have been afraid of making you angry.” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his thighs, his hands clasped. “But I don’t have your courage.”

“Are you kidding? You dropped everything to come to Barbados, even though you weren’t sure what would happen once you got here. And when you first came to San Francisco you had no idea if I’d welcome you or not.” She grasped his hands. “Don’t you see? We’re together now because you followed your heart despite the risks.”

“I love you so much,” he said in a low voice. “Too much, maybe.”

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head as though dislodging the thought. “I’m sorry about what happened earlier. I behaved … abominably.”

She released his hands and rubbed his back, the fragile silk of his robe sliding against her fingers. “I wish you wouldn’t let it upset you so much,” she said. “We just need to be more careful about protection.”

“That’s not it. I was out of control.” He swallowed and pressed his lips together. “Did I hurt you?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

“But I behaved like he did, didn’t I? Shoving you down and jumping on top of you and …” He sighed and stared at the ground. “I’m sorry.”

Elizabeth wanted to reassure him but she didn’t want to lie, and his rough urgency had briefly raised echoes of the past. She gnawed her lip and stared at the ocean, the dark waters splashed with glimmers of light from the slender moon. The waves of anxiety rolling off his body threatened to engulf her, so she tore her attention from the horizon and took a deep breath. “No. You weren’t like him. He focused entirely on himself. To him I was just a convenient body, to be used and then discarded. You could never treat me like that; it’s simply not in you.”

He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “But you sounded so frightened when you stopped me. It reminded me of that other time, the first time we tried to make love.”

“This was entirely different,” she said, grateful that he didn’t know how close she had come to a full-blown flashback. “I only asked you to stop because we were about five seconds from doing something pretty risky.”

“I’m sorry. I wanted you so much I wasn’t thinking clearly. You have that effect on me.”

“Ditto.” She smiled and resumed her gentle massage of his tight back muscles. “And while I admit your approach was rather aggressive and hurried, and, well …”

“Utterly lacking in finesse?”

She was pleased to see a glint of rueful humor in his expression. “Okay, yes. You lacked some of your usual finesse. And I admit, if things between us were like that all the time … Well, if you were that kind of man I wouldn’t be here.”

“I promise you, it will never happen again.”

“Let’s not be hasty. A little bit of caveman machismo now and then …” She licked her lips and grinned, heat suffusing her cheeks. “What I’m trying to say is, I was a more than willing participant in what happened. So quit beating yourself up about it.”

He gave her a wan smile. “Thank you for understanding.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m miles from understanding. I’m just saying it’s not worth torturing yourself.”

“Then I won’t.” He rose to his feet, tightening the belt on his robe. “Shall we go back inside?”

“Not yet. We have more to talk about.”

“It’s late, and I’m tired.” His eyes were fixed on the house, a pale white ghost hovering in the shadows. “We can talk tomorrow. Let’s go back to bed.” He stepped off the stone terrace and waited for her on the lawn, arms crossed over his chest.

She stood and faced him, speaking with all the authority she could muster. “This can’t wait till tomorrow. You had some kind of emotional meltdown earlier, and I need to know what happened.”

“Nothing happened. I—” He shook his head, his lips pressed together in a grim line. “Nothing happened.”

Elizabeth gritted her teeth. She had never met a person more reluctant to share his feelings. “Come on, William. That’s obviously not true. I hate it when you shut me out.”

An emotion she couldn’t read flickered in his eyes. She held out her hand, and he allowed himself, though with obvious reluctance, to be led back to the bench. “Now tell me what’s bothering you.”

He stared at their joined hands in silence. As she waited, the rumble of the ocean seeped into her brain and she began to realize how tired she was. Maybe it’s a mistake to push him when he’s overwrought and we’re both tired. Maybe tomorrow morning we can—

“I had a dream. A nightmare, actually.”

She leapt on his comment, her exhaustion forgotten. “What was it about?”

“I was running in the fog, chasing … something. Something I had to have; my life seemed to depend on it. But it flew away and I was left alone.”

“It sounds like an upsetting dream.”

“I always wake up from it feeling empty and cold.”

“Always? You’ve had the dream before?”

He withdrew his hand from her grasp and leaned back against the bench, fiddling with the belt on his robe. “When I was a teenager I had it for months, but then it stopped. It started again while I was in Australia. It got to where I preferred to stay awake all night.”

“Poor William. No wonder you’re so tired.” She touched his silk-covered knee. “So that’s why you went downstairs to the piano? Because of the dream?”

He nodded. “I knew it would be a long time before I could sleep again, and I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“If it ever happens again, please disturb me. Isn’t that what you’d want me to do if I had a nightmare? Wake you up so you could comfort me?”

“Yes, but I’m in the habit of relying on the piano when I can’t sleep.”

“Maybe you need to learn some new habits.” She winced at her words. It was bad enough to be jealous of a musical instrument without demonstrating it through her unintentionally sharp tone.

“The piano is always there for me, no matter what. Can I count on you for that?”

It wasn’t his words that surprised her as much as the knife-like edge in his voice. Clearly she had touched a nerve. “Well, right now we’re living on opposite coasts, so I guess you’re right. I can’t always be there.”

“That’s not—” He stopped abruptly.

“That’s not what?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not important.”

“I think it is. What were you going to say?”

“I said it wasn’t important, and it’s not.” He stared straight ahead, his voice sullen.

She flashed a beguiling smile, hoping he would respond to a lighter approach. “Well, in that case, what have you got to lose by telling me?”

He stood up, his chin tilted at a defiant angle. “Elizabeth, it’s late and I’m not in the mood for games. I’m going back to bed and I’d like you to come with me.”

His evasiveness and his truculent expression convinced her more than ever that they were nearing the crux of the problem. She jumped to her feet, wincing as a pebble dug into her heel, and stepped into his path. “Why won’t you talk to me? This is exactly how we got into trouble before, by hiding things from each other.”

He inhaled a labored breath that seemed to tremble through his body, and then he stared at her, his eyes dark and restless. Just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer her, a stream of impassioned words tumbled from his mouth. “You want to know what I’m thinking? All right, I’ll tell you. You want me to turn to you when I’m troubled, and to trust you with all my secrets. But how can I do that when I can’t be sure you’ll still be there for me next year, or next month, or even tomorrow?”

“I’m not going anywhere. Obviously something could happen that we can’t control, but—”

Dark emotion flared in his eyes and he grasped her shoulders. “I’m not talking about one of us getting struck by lightning. I’m talking about wondering how long it’ll be before the next time you get angry with me over something I’ve done and I lose you again, maybe for good this time.”

“That’s not going to happen. I love you.”

“You said you loved me before, but you still pushed me away. That night in San Francisco, I left you not knowing if I’d ever see you again.” He rubbed the heel of one hand against his eye, his lips pressed together in an angry line.

She rested a hand over his heart in a futile attempt to soothe his pain. “I know, and I’m sorry. It was horrible, knowing you were so miserable.”

“But not horrible enough to change your mind.” Now that he had started talking, he seemed unable to stop. “You knew it would be torture for me to go to Australia thinking I’d lost you, but still you shut me out. I spent two weeks in hell, wondering how I was going to live without you. Every day I prayed that you’d call, especially after I sent the letter, but you didn’t, not till a few days ago.”

“I know. I wanted to call, but at first when I got the letter I was confused, and—”

His fingers dug into her shoulders. “Lizzy, you broke my heart!” he shouted. “How could you do that, if you really loved me?”

The ragged misery in his voice tore through her. “Are you saying you don’t believe I love you?”

“I thought I did, but …” His voice trailed off. He relaxed his grip on her shoulders and stared past her at the ocean.

Elizabeth gently captured a tear sliding from the corner of his eye. “I do love you, William, so much. Please believe me.”

“It tortured me to think that I meant so little to you, that you could let me go so easily.”

“Easily? It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I almost changed my mind and asked you to stay. I told you that night that I still loved you, and it was the truth.”

“It was hard to believe that when you wouldn’t even speak to me,” he said, his eyes flashing. “And I was angry that you had dismissed me that way. You can’t imagine how it felt, loving you so much but hating you a little too.”

Indignation flooded her. “You think I can’t imagine how it felt?” She laughed, a dry, harsh sound. “I wish. Have you forgotten that you broke my heart too?”

“I haven’t forgotten, and I’m sorry. But if you hadn’t sent me packing perhaps you could have spared us both a great deal of pain.”

“I won’t deny that we were apart for longer than we should have been. But I didn’t have much of a choice. That night you didn’t really want to talk together and work things out.”

“That’s absurd,” he snapped. “Of course I did.”

“No, you wanted to rationalize what you’d done. You thought if I understood your reasons, I’d approve of your actions.”

“But isn’t that why you finally called me? Because you read my letter, and then you understood?”

“Partly. But by the time you wrote the letter you had started to doubt your actions and you weren’t as defensive. You explained, but you apologized too.”

He opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, his gaze dropping to the ground.

“And there’s something else,” she continued, flipping her windblown hair behind her shoulders. “It wasn’t so much what you said in the letter as the way I felt when I read it. After that I knew I had to be with you in spite of everything. Which is ironic, because that’s what I was afraid would happen that night in San Francisco.”

“I don’t understand.” He was calmer now, his frown one of confusion and not anger.

“I was afraid if you took me in your arms I’d forgive you everything, that we’d just shove it all out of sight without resolving anything. And the next time it happened, we’d have been together longer, and the pain would be even worse.”

He stared at her, a spark of comprehension in his eyes. “I never thought of it that way.”

“I needed time to think clearly. Except that after you left, it hurt so much to think about you that I tried not to. But none of the distractions I tried worked. Not constant activity, not music, not even ice cream.” She dragged a shaky breath into her lungs.

“Lizzy, I—”

“No one has ever hurt me that much, not even …” She paused, every muscle in her body trembling. “Because I’ve never loved anyone this much.”

He shook his head and gathered her into his arms, and with a low sob she pressed against him, locking her arms around his waist. They held each other fiercely, perhaps afraid the emotions buffeting them would tear them apart. Elizabeth buried her head against his chest, her tears soaking into the thin silk of his robe. His fingers combed through her hair and she burrowed closer, pressing her lips to the base of his throat where his pulse thrummed out a powerful rhythm.

“I’m so sorry, cara,” he whispered. “For everything.”

“I’m sorry too.”

How much time passed while they clung to each other, she would never know, but eventually she felt him stir, relaxing his convulsive hold on her. She lifted her head, dabbed at her tear-stained face, and gave him a tremulous smile. “I hate to cry, and I’ve done more of it since I met you than in the last twenty years.”

He smiled, brushing his thumb over the corner of his eye. “I’m reluctant to admit it, but so have I. My father would be disgusted with me.” He sighed and his smile faded. “Lizzy, I need you to make me a promise.”

“What is it?”

“‘Love’ is such an inadequate word for what I feel for you. I don’t think you understand how important you are to me.”

Her stomach did a quick hop-skip. Was he warming up to another marriage proposal? It was possible, given his concerns about her permanence in his life. “I love you too,” she said softly.

“But for me it goes beyond love. My world is a different place because you’re in it. You connect me—to people, and to things outside myself. And …” He tucked a curl behind her ear. “You spread light into all the dark corners of my mind and heart.”

A solitary tear trickled down his cheek. She dabbed it away with one finger, her vision clouding as her own eyes grew damp. “Oh, William,” she whispered.

“But I can’t live with the constant fear that the next time I do something you don’t like, you’ll push me away again. I need you to promise that no matter what happens, you’ll give me a chance to try to make things right. Otherwise—” He paused, his gaze steadfast. “Can you promise me that?”

“Yes. I promise.” She didn’t trust her voice any further, so she drew his head down to hers and kissed him instead. The sea-scented breeze whispered around them as they stood together, love and forgiveness flowing between them in the profound silence.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, lifting her head and meeting his solemn gaze. “I can’t promise we’ll never disagree, but from now on we’ll try to work things out together.” She caressed his cheek. “It’s too bad we can’t just decide to see eye to eye on everything.”

“You could just agree with everything I say.” He kissed the tip of her nose.

“Dream on, big fellow.” She tried for a disdainful smirk, but his mischievous grin was too infectious. A warm smile stole across her face instead, and she ran her finger over his cheek. “Seriously, though, you know we’re both too pigheaded to have a placid relationship, right? It’s going to be more of a roller-coaster ride.”

“I suppose so, but I take exception to being called pigheaded. I prefer ‘strong-willed.’” He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Though in your case, my love—”

“Don’t even start.” She pushed him away in mock annoyance, but he grabbed her hands and swiftly covered her mouth with his. She melted at once, her capitulation announced by a soft sigh, and her hands slid up his chest and around his neck. It wasn’t fair that he could reduce her to a state of boneless contentment using only his lips, and no doubt he had figured out that it was the most reliable way to keep her quiet.

By the time he lifted his head, his eyes shone with sleepy desire. “We’ll work it out,” he said in a low, husky voice that sent a tiny thrill shimmering through her. “We have to. We belong together.”

She nodded, her hands threading through the thick hair at his nape. “I don’t think I really believed it till now.”

“Took you long enough,” he said, pausing to brush a butterfly kiss over her lips. “I’ve known it since the first time I kissed you.”

She dismissed his smug remark with a narrow-eyed smile and a shake of her head and returned to her original point. “In spite of that, we’re going to argue, at least sometimes. We just need to learn how to do it without drawing blood. And we need to make each other a promise.”

He raised his eyebrows and waited, tightening his arms around her waist.

“We need to talk about our thoughts and feelings, both of us. No hiding behind walls. No deciding what the other person needs or doesn’t need to know. I’m not saying we aren’t entitled to our private thoughts, but if something is affecting our relationship we need to talk about it openly. Can you promise me that?”

“I promise to do my best, but I may need some help at first.”

“I’ll give you all the help you need. And I promise, too.”

He released her and yawned behind his hand. “Now can we go back to bed?”

“Just one more thing. We need to talk about my job at the conservatory.”

He grimaced. “Can’t it wait till morning?”

“I know you’re tired, but this is the last big thing still hanging over us.”

“All right,” he said with a sigh. “But I need to sit down.”

He took her hand and led her to the bench, seating himself and pulling her down onto his lap. She draped her arms around his neck and spoke with complete candor. “I know I handled things badly after I learned what you’d done, but it doesn’t change the fact that you shouldn’t have done it in the first place. And you made it much worse by keeping the truth from me. I felt so hurt and betrayed.”

“Which I regret more than I can say. But I hope you believe that I did it all—even keeping it from you—because I loved you.”

“I know. You explained in your letter, and even before that Jane helped me to understand. But I can’t have you arranging my life for me, especially not without my knowledge, no matter how good your intentions may be.”

He sighed. “I want the people I love to be happy. Why should I stand by and do nothing when I have the means to give them what they want?”

“You can always offer to help, but it has to be my decision to accept or not.”

“But you’re so independent, I know you’ll refuse. You wouldn’t even let me buy you a cell phone, and that was just a trivial gift.”

He turned a pair of mournful brown eyes on her. She’d always found him adorable—and sexy—when he pouted. “To you, maybe it was trivial,” she said, “but to me it wasn’t. Besides, the phone I bought still came from you, because you were paying my salary.”

“I don’t see it that way. You earned every penny. In fact, I used to wish you weren’t so dedicated, because then you’d have had more time for me instead of constantly rushing off to school for extra rehearsals. It always seemed unfair that my money ended up depriving me of your company so often.”

“Hoist on your own petard, eh? Serves you right. Anyway, I suppose I was entitled to a decent salary in return for putting up with Catherine de Bourgh curling her lip at me on a regular basis. Which reminds me.”

“Oh, no. Am I in trouble again?”

“Not this time. She told me that you offered to fund my replacement’s salary, to make sure she wouldn’t interfere with whatever decision I made about my job. Thank you.”

He shook his head. “This is where you lose me. That wasn’t interference too?”

“I guess it was, and I told you not to talk to her, but having the upper hand with Catherine was a rare treat.” She stroked his sandpaper-rough jaw. “I realize this isn’t easy for you. You’re generous and loving and you just want to help. But the next time you decide to rearrange the continents for the sake of someone you love, stop and ask yourself if you’d be upset if the situations were reversed.”

“I’ll try, on one condition.” He jutted his chin out. ”I’m still going to give you presents whenever I feel like it, and if you think I’m going to ask your permission first, you’re delusional.”

“Fair enough,” she replied. His imperious moods were the sexiest of all—when she didn’t want to kill him, anyway … and sometimes even then.

He groaned softly and gave her a quick, hard kiss. “Now can we go back to bed?”

“I think so.” She jumped off his lap and extended her hand to help him up.

He made a show of struggling to his feet. “I hope you’re prepared to carry me into the house if I pass out from exhaustion along the way,” he grumbled.

“Watch it, mister, or I’ll suggest staying up to see the sunrise. I bet we wouldn’t have much longer to wait.”

“Forget it. I’ve seen too many sunrises lately.” He yawned, exaggerating it for theatrical effect, and then draped a heavy arm over her shoulders as they ambled toward the house.

“You know, if you’re that tired, maybe I should sleep in another room so I won’t disturb you.”

His disdainful stare made his opinion clear.

“Just kidding. Though I get the feeling you’re so tired you wouldn’t know the difference.”

“Trust me,” he said, tightening his arm around her shoulders. “I’d know.”

 

William leaned back against the pillows, his eyelids drooping. It would have been easy to surrender to the seductive comfort of the bed, but despite his exhaustion he didn’t want to fall asleep until he held Elizabeth in his arms. He lacked the energy for anything else, at least until morning.

“You’re still awake?” She stood silhouetted in the doorway to the bathroom, all curls and curves, her legs long and slender below the abbreviated hem of her nightshirt.

“I was waiting for you.” He instantly revised his assessment of his energy reserves.

She pulled back the cool white sheet and slipped beneath it, sliding into his arms. “Mmm,” she murmured against his neck. “This feels so good.”

Indeed it did. After the emotional upheaval of the past hours, it soothed his heart to lie beside her in their quiet haven and drift in a haze of contentment. They held each other gently, sharing long, slow kisses and lazy caresses, and playing a teasing game of footsie under the covers.

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow when William began to unfasten the buttons of her nightshirt. “I thought you were tired.”

“I am, but I want to feel you—all of you—close to me.” He pushed her shirt open, pausing to appreciate the view. “I think we’ve had enough of barriers.”

She sat up, shrugged the nightshirt off her shoulders, and nestled back against him with a blissful sigh. He closed his eyes, breathing in the subtle jasmine scent wafting from the dark curls cascading onto the pillow. Her body against his felt like a warm silken cloud—that is, if clouds of silk had a luscious set of curves. He snickered at the thought.

“What’s so funny?” she murmured. Her fingers traced lazy designs on his chest, her light, teasing touch bringing his body roaring back to life.

“Just a crazy thought going through my head.”

Her hand drifted lower, causing a hitch of anticipation in his breathing, but she stopped at his waist. “You know, there’s one more thing I need to ask you.”

“Hmm?”

“I know the dream brought back bad feelings for you, but I’m still not clear on what happened down in the parlor.”

“You mean why I turned into a pillaging barbarian?”

“Stop it.” She raised her head, her smile fading. “What I meant was, you talked about being angry with me. And I wondered if maybe anger got mixed in with your other feelings when we were downstairs.”

“Oh, Lizzy, no.” No wonder her voice sounded hesitant. “Cara, I would never take anger out on you that way.”

“I know you wouldn’t do it on purpose, but they say love and hate really aren’t far removed from each other.”

“They are for me. No, it was a case of possessiveness run amok.” He smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead.

“You mean you were jealous?” She frowned. “You can’t possibly think there’s anyone else I want to be with.”

“Not that kind of possessiveness. I was thinking about it earlier, when you found me outside. My dream was about losing something of great value. In other words, you.”

“I wondered about that, but I thought I’d sound like a narcissist if I suggested it.”

“It was absolutely about you. I went downstairs to the piano to try to calm myself, but the dream had taken me back to the way I felt in Australia. And then I started to think about the possibility of losing you again because of some future disagreement, and I knew I couldn’t bear for that to happen.”

“Hence your musical choices,” she said, pressing a kiss to his chest, just above his heart. “Poor William.”

“And then you appeared, lovely and warm and fresh from my bed, and all I could think about was claiming you, in the most primal way possible, I suppose.” He grimaced. His loss of control still embarrassed him, but fortunately she wasn’t holding a grudge.

“This has really been eating at you, hasn’t it?” Her hand traced a whorl on his chest.

“I’ve never felt as lonely as I did in Australia. At night I ached for you so much I couldn’t sleep, and most days all I could think about was that I’d lost the most wonderful woman in the world through my own idiocy.”

“My poor sweet boy,” she whispered, caressing his cheek. “All alone halfway around the world. At least I had Jane looking out for me. I’m so sorry; I should have called you sooner.”

“I’m sure you can think of a way to make it up to me,” he said, arching an eyebrow in a clear invitation to licentious behavior.

“Is that so?” Two emerald eyes glittered in the near darkness, their expression unquestionably wicked. “Well, let’s see.”

With a contented sigh, he lay back and watched her delicate hands as they wandered slowly down his body.

She was exploring his mid-section, her hands caressing his hips, when she looked up at him. “Would you really have broken up with me if I hadn’t promised to work through our problems from now on? You didn’t exactly say that, but you implied it.”

“I guess we’ll never know.”

But William did know, and later as he hovered over her, their bodies joined in a tender act of love, he confessed the truth. “I could never leave you,” he whispered as they undulated gently against each other, sweet pleasure flowing between them. “It wouldn’t matter what you did.”

“Good,” she whispered back, drawing his head down for a kiss, “because I’m yours, body and soul.”

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1Prelude for piano No. 8 in C minor, Opus 23, No. 7, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Performed by Van Cliburn on My Favorite Rachmaninoff, (c) 2000, BMG Entertainment. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

2 Ballade No. 2 in F major, Opus 38 CT3, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy on Chopin: Four Ballades, Four Scherzi, (c) 1964, 1967, 1999 Universal Classics Group. Listen to a sample on iTunes.