lavender orchid“I bet the Garden of Eden looked just like this,” Elizabeth said, her eyes shining as she inspected a brilliant fuschia orchid. She had expected Pemberley’s garden to be beautiful, but she hadn’t anticipated this lush tropical wilderness.

William grinned. “Does that make me Adam or the serpent?”

“Oh, the serpent, definitely. You haven’t tried to convince me to eat forbidden fruit, but you’ve tempted me in lots of other ways.”

“Speaking of which…” He drew her into his arms. “I’ve imagined kissing you in this exact spot.”

palm tree “This spot?” She pointed at her lips, deliberately misunderstanding him. “But you’ve kissed me there lots of times.”

“Then I’d better find some other spots to kiss.” He bent down and nuzzled her neck and ear until she shrieked and tried to wriggle away. His mouth swooped down to cover hers in a long, deep kiss that stifled her laughter.

She curled her hand into his and they continued down the path, his unabashed pleasure in sharing his home tugging at her heart. Rarely had she seen him so relaxed and—she paused for a moment to summon the right word—peaceful? Fulfilled?

lizard They wandered along, pausing occasionally to inspect an exotic bloom or to examine a tiny lizard skittering across the sun-dappled path. A canopy of trees wrapped the garden in seclusion, the silence punctuated by the twittering of birds and the occasional forlorn cry of a gull wheeling overhead. Through a clearing in the trees she could see the ocean, an expanse of glittering sapphire stretching to the horizon.

Pemberley garden The path curved toward a gazebo tucked beneath the trees, its roof weathered with age. Elizabeth squeezed William’s hand. “I love it! It’s like a secret hideaway.”

“Exactly. When I was a boy, I used to come out here when I wanted to be alone. I’d sit here and read, and they’d find me hours later.”

gazebo in Pemberley garden She could easily imagine him as a solemn dark-haired child, trudging through the garden with a book. “We should have dinner here tonight.”

“We could do that if you want. Insects can be a problem in the evenings, but I’m sure Mrs. Shepherd can arrange for some citronella candles.”

They sat on a worn bench beneath the roof, still holding hands. “I can see why you love it here,” she breathed. It seemed important to speak in hushed tones, as though they had stumbled onto a serene, leafy chapel.

“My best childhood memories are from Pemberley.” Nostalgia shimmered in his voice. “My mother loved to come here. She could relax and be herself and not Mrs. Edmund Darcy, society matron.”

“And your father? Did he enjoy it too?”

William swallowed and pressed his lips together. “He was too busy. I don’t remember ever being here with him.”

Sensing his discomfort, she stepped back into more comfortable territory. “I bet your mother loved this garden.”

“She did. I knew the names of most of the exotic plants by the time I was six or seven.” He turned to her, his smile wistful. “And later I taught Georgie, since she never had a chance to learn from Mamma.”

The catch in his voice made her ache for him. She released his hand and began to rub his back gently. “Georgie was just a baby when your mother died, wasn’t she?” He had occasionally spoken of his mother, but Elizabeth knew little about the circumstances of Anna Darcy’s death.

“She was about two months old.” He closed his eyes, relaxing under her ministrations.

“The poor girl, to have no memories of her mother. How did it happen?”

“A car accident. I thought you knew that.”

“I meant, how did the accident happen?”

“It was during the summer.” His eyes dropped to the sandy soil beneath their feet. “She was at our house in the Hamptons with a … friend. She took Georgie and the nanny, but I stayed in the city to work with my tutor, finishing high school so I could start at Juilliard in the fall.”

“So the accident happened in the Hamptons?”

He nodded, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his thighs. “They were on their way back from a party late at night, and another car broadsided them.”

“Was your mother driving?”

“No.” His jaw tightened, and she felt the tension in his back muscles.

“The friend was driving? Did she survive the accident?”

“Yes, and yes. He was only slightly injured.”

“He?” Elizabeth had noticed the hesitation in his voice when he mentioned his mother’s “friend.”

He sat up ramrod straight, his eyes hard and cold. “He. My mother’s  …” He shrugged. “I don’t know what to call him.”

“They were lovers?” she asked gently, still stroking his back.

He sighed. “Around my thirteenth birthday I started performing more, with symphony orchestras and in competitions. It consumed most of my mother’s time. She always traveled with me, and in effect she was my agent, handling all the contracts and other arrangements. She didn’t have time to run the foundation anymore, so she hired a director. He and Sonya handled day-to-day operations, and Mamma and Gran made the big decisions.”

“And your mother and this man …”

“Yes.” He sighed and shook his head. “It took me a while to notice; teenaged boys aren’t particularly observant. But I’ll never forget the day I found out. About a year after he started the job, I walked in on them kissing in her office.”

“You must have been so embarrassed. And I’m sure they were too.”

“Mamma was horrified, but he didn’t seem to care; he just gave me a cocky grin. I wanted to rip that smirk off his face.”

Elizabeth became aware of the scent of rain, and then she heard the sibilant whisper of the droplets bathing the dense foliage. “Did she talk to you about it later?”

“She tried. She said she was lonely, that she’d been alone ever since Father left us. But I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to forget what I’d seen.”

“Your father left you? I didn’t think they ever got divorced.”

“They didn’t, but they lived separate lives. Father had an apartment a few blocks away, overlooking the park. On Sundays he usually went to church with the family and had brunch at the house afterwards. That’s Gran’s weekly command performance, and apparently a failed marriage wasn’t an adequate excuse to opt out.”

“So you only saw your father once a week?”

“If that. Once I started traveling, we missed plenty of Sundays. I suppose Mamma might have planned it that way on purpose to avoid him. He also came to the house on ceremonial occasions: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, and the like. And he made appearances at social events where his absence would have been remarked on. I’m sure everyone knew what was going on, but the public façade had to be preserved. Gran insisted on that.”

“I’m surprised he moved out of the townhouse,” she remarked. It mystified her that Edmund, whose birthright included the house, had been the one to leave instead of Anna.

“That’s how much he wanted to get away from us. And I suppose it gave him more latitude to live as he chose. He had more than his share of affairs over the years. Discreetly, of course, but the gossip mill always found out.” He leaned forward again, staring at the ground.

She longed to smooth the harsh lines from his face. “You poor thing. I knew your parents had some problems, but I had no idea …”

After a moment he raised his head and turned his searching gaze on her. “Are you sure you want to be with me?” he asked. “The Darcys are short on models of domestic bliss.”

Despite his casual tone, doubt clouded his watchful eyes. She stretched an arm around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. “Oh, no, you don’t. You’re not getting rid of me that easily. Besides, my parents aren’t much of an example either. Well, not unless you want to know what happens when two people share nothing in common but their species. If tomorrow my mom were to vanish into a crack in the earth—which isn’t as improbable as it might sound, considering where they live—I think it would be several days before Dad even noticed.”

His rueful smile faded as quickly as it appeared, little more than a twitch of the cheek muscles. “We’re quite a pair.”

“We’ll just have to figure this stuff out together.” She brushed her knuckles against his cheek. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I’m glad I did.” Despite his solemn expression a hint of amusement glimmered in his eyes. “Especially since you didn’t run off screaming at the news that the Darcys have skeletons piled to the rafters.”

“Well, I would have,” she declared with a deadpan expression, “but it’s raining pretty hard.”

His smile came out of hiding at last and he pulled her close. “Afraid you’ll melt?”

“I’ll get you, my pretty,” she cackled. “And your little dog too!”

“Please don’t turn green,” he said, flashing a sweet, dimpled grin. “I’d have a problem with that.”

A filament of sunlight touched the ground outside the gazebo. The brief shower had passed, though raindrops still dripped from the trees. The moisture-laden air carried the heady perfume of damp earth, green leaves, and spicy tropical blooms.

“Did your grandmother know about … the man?” She didn’t know what else to call him, since William hadn’t mentioned his name.

“I assume so. Gran doesn’t miss much. But of course we’ve never discussed it. If she found out, I’m sure she had plenty to say in private, but her public position would have been ignorance.”

“What about your father? Do you think he knew? How did he react?”

William shrugged. “He must have, but I have no idea how he felt. Considering his own behavior at the time, he was hardly in a position to criticize.”

His tone discouraged further queries about Edmund, which was maddening. Elizabeth opened her mouth to ask a critical question despite William’s aloofness, but she bit back the words when the indelicacy of her intended probe struck her full force. He had shown unprecedented trust by sharing painful details of his childhood. Although he had chosen to omit a key puzzle piece, she would not press him beyond his comfort zone. At least, not yet.

A fresh breeze swirled through the garden, dislodging a blizzard of fragile pink petals from a nearby tree and floating them into the gazebo. She brushed them from his hair, and he returned the favor with his usual courtly grace.

flowers in Pemberley garden She cleared her throat. “I have a question, but I’m not sure quite how to put it.”

“Just ask.”

“I’d have expected, when your parents separated, that your father would have been the one to stay; after all, it’s his family’s house. And then later if your grandmother found out about your mother’s affair …” It wasn’t the question she wanted to ask, but she hoped it might elicit further confidences.

“Ah. You’re wondering why Gran would willingly shelter the woman cuckolding her son.”

Elizabeth grimaced. “I’m not passing judgment on your mother, but it seems odd.”

“I see what you mean. Gran was fond of Mamma. They got off to a rough start when we first arrived from Italy, but they bonded not long after when a crisis arose.”

In a flash of insight, the pieces fell together. “Because of you, and your illness?”

He nodded. “It took Gran a while to warm up to her new daughter-in-law, but apparently I won her over at first sight.”

“Of course you did.” She covered his clasped hands with one of hers. “I bet you were the most beautiful child she’d ever laid eyes on. And Mrs. Reynolds told me once that you were a sweet little fellow.”

“Whatever the reason, I’ve always been special to Gran. So it must have been hard for her—and my mother too, of course—when I was hospitalized. Father was busy running the company, and from what I understand he and my mother were barely speaking by then. So after my surgery when complications arose, Gran and Mamma leaned on each other while they waited to see if I was going to live or die.”

“It was that serious? I had no idea.” She tightened her grip on his hands.

“I was in the hospital for three or four weeks, in critical condition for at least half that time.”

“It must have been excruciating for them. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to wait and watch, with your child on the brink of death. To know they might lose you …” She shook her head, feeling a small measure of Anna’s distress. “And you were just a toddler. You must have been bewildered by it all.”

He draped his arm around her shoulders. “Fortunately, I don’t really remember it, but it terrified my mother. Even after I recovered she hated to let me out of her sight.”

“I can understand that.”

“When Father asked for the separation a few months after I came home from the hospital, Gran told him he’d have to be the one to leave; I was staying, and she couldn’t separate me from Mamma after all we’d been through. Apparently he and Gran had a bitter argument; he thought living in a house full of women was turning me into a weakling. But Gran held firm.”

“So she chose you over your father.”

“Perhaps she thought if she issued an ultimatum he’d change his mind and stay, but instead he called her bluff. Besides, I think Gran knew my mother needed me as much as I needed her. Gran has a tough exterior, but when she loves someone there isn’t anything she won’t do to protect them from harm.”

“She sounds a lot like her grandson.” Elizabeth smiled up at him.

He embraced her with his eyes. “Regardless of her feelings, if Gran had known about the affair she would have been upset. I think she must have known. It would have been difficult to deceive someone living in the same house, particularly since it went on for some time.”

Something wasn’t adding up. “For how long?”

“I can’t be certain, of course, but I was fourteen when I walked in on them, and fifteen when she—when the accident happened.” He stood up, smoothing the wrinkles from his tan shorts. “Shall we move on? You haven’t seen the lily pond.”

lily pads She nodded and rose to her feet, her mind whirling from the impact of his story. The timeline of the last two years of Anna Darcy’s life led her to an inevitable and troubling conclusion. She wished William would tell her the rest, and again she fought the temptation to give voice to her suspicions.

The pond came into view around the next turn, a profusion of lily pads floating on its placid surface. She heard a faint meow and turned to see a slender cat at the edge of the path, its tail upright as it scrutinized them. She bent over and extended her hand. The cat stretched forward warily, sniffing her fingers. It allowed her to scratch its head, but then it trotted away. She straightened and turned to William. “Is the cat yours?”

cat by pond “He belongs to the Shepherds.”

“That makes sense. I’d never take you for a cat person.”

“Definitely not.” He plucked a pink hibiscus bloom from a nearby bush and tucked it behind her ear. “Though there’s a certain lady whose eyes are a bit cat-like, and I’m crazy about her.”

pink and yellow hibiscus They completed their tour of the garden and stepped out onto the lawn. “I’d love to go down to the beach now,” she said. “I know it’s a special place for you, and it’s special to me too because it brought us back together.”

“Even if we hadn’t met on the beach I would have found you. I didn’t come all the way down here to miss seeing you.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.”

“Me, too. It’s been a while since brunch. I’ll ask Mrs. Shepherd to pack a picnic basket with a bottle of wine and some snacks.”

They found Mrs. Shepherd dusting in one of the upstairs bedrooms. William had taken Elizabeth on a lengthy tour of the house after brunch, and this room had been her favorite, decorated in white with touches of shell pink and pale aqua. At William’s request for a snack suitable for a beach picnic, the housekeeper smiled. “I know just the thing,” she said genially. “Won’t take me but two shakes.” She set down her dust cloth and made her ponderous way down the hall toward the stairs.

William drew Elizabeth into his bedroom. “Why does she have to be so efficient?” he grumbled. “Two shakes isn’t much time. If she’d said half an hour …” He lifted an eyebrow, his grin rakish as he ran his hands down her bare arms in a sinuous motion.

Goose bumps rose up on her arms. “You, sir, are insatiable.” She almost snickered at her involuntary thought: Pot, kettle.

“With you, I am,” he murmured, his voice husky. “Besides, I’m making up for lost time.” His hands settled on her waist and he lowered his head to hers, rubbing noses with her. “Have I mentioned how sexy you look today?”

“In a tank top and shorts?” Her protest sounded weak but she wasn’t sure where she found the will to argue with him at all while his body surrounded hers with insistent heat and his lips flitted across her cheek.

“Absolutely.” His warm breath tickled her ear. “Of course you’d be even sexier out of them.”

She lost track of time after that, absorbed in the mindless thrill of his kisses, until a voice in the hall recalled her to reality. “Mr. Darcy? I assume you want some wine with your picnic, but I wasn’t sure—” Mrs. Shepherd’s words ceased abruptly. “I’m so sorry.”

Elizabeth flinched and yanked her hands from William’s bare chest, easily accessible through his half-unbuttoned shirt, as though the touch of his skin burned her palms. Her face aflame, she tugged down the hem of her tank top and crossed her arms over her chest.

William met the housekeeper’s amused gaze with imperturbable dignity. “We’ll be down in a minute, and I’ll choose a wine then.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

Elizabeth ground her teeth until Mrs. Shepherd was out of earshot. “How do you do that?” she spat out in a taut whisper.

“How do I do what?”

“Take it in stride when we’re practically caught in flagrante delicto?” She had expected a strong reaction from him—either anger at the interruption, or embarrassment similar to her own.

He shrugged. “You never have complete privacy when you live in a house with servants. Believe me, she’s seen far worse during Richard’s visits. But we should be more careful about shutting the door.” He stepped toward her, his hands skimming her shoulders. “Now, are we going to the beach, or shall we stay here and pick up where we left off?” He leaned forward and murmured in her ear. “We could have our picnic in bed.”

“Definitely the beach.” Elizabeth extricated herself from his embrace, her amorous mood drowned in a sea of humiliation. She doubted she’d ever be able to make love to William again with Mrs. Shepherd, or anyone else, within a mile of the house.

He sighed. “Okay. Let me find my sunglasses, and then we can go.”

“I must have left mine downstairs. I’ll meet you down there.”

The sight of the empty table in the front hallway filled her with dismay. Based on their earlier path through the house, she had probably left her sunglasses in the kitchen. Her mind raced to find an alternative to facing Mrs. Shepherd again so soon. Finding none, she adjusted her ponytail, lifted her head high, and strode into the kitchen assuming a counterfeit air of breezy confidence.

Mrs. Shepherd greeted her with a rueful smile. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I interrupted something, didn’t I?”

Elizabeth felt the blood rising to her face but she willed it away. “We’re the ones who should be apologizing.”

“You’re on vacation. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourselves.” Mrs. Shepherd’s small, wide-set eyes gleamed with interest and her generous mouth turned up at one corner. “No wonder you two are hungry. You’ve been burnin’ calories the best way there is.”

Elizabeth resisted the urge to dive under the table. Mrs. Shepherd must have noticed her distress, because she wiped her hands on a towel and patted Elizabeth’s arm.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Elizabeth, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Of course you want to make the most of having a handsome man like Mr. Darcy around.” She shook her head. “But there I go again. It’s like Winston always says. Every thought that pops into my head falls right out of my mouth.” Winston, the laconic Mr. Shepherd, had responded to Elizabeth’s friendly remarks in polite monosyllables yesterday morning while driving her back to the hotel.

It was impossible to imagine this forthright woman building a comfortable working relationship with Rose Darcy. With a mental shrug, Elizabeth retrieved her sunglasses and slipped them into her pocket. “Thank you for fixing the snack for us. I know we’ll enjoy it.”

“I’m happy to do it. By the way, I’ll ask him myself when he comes downstairs, but do you think Mr. Darcy would mind if Winston and I went to Holetown tonight after I fix dinner? Our daughter has three sick kids and I think she could use some help. I’ll be back in time to fix breakfast tomorrow, of course, but we’d be gone all night.”

Even without the overt emphasis on those last two words, Elizabeth would have guessed from the mischievous glint in Mrs. Shepherd’s eye that this was merely a pretext. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” Elizabeth’s mind raced ahead, devising enticing plans for an evening of complete privacy. No, William wouldn’t mind at all.

 

Bathsheba beachAs usual, peace reigned on the beach below Pemberley. A small flock of surfers bobbed in the waves, and an occasional beachcomber strolled past near the tide line, but aside from those minor distractions William and Elizabeth had the long stretch of powdery cream-colored sand to themselves. The solitude and the untamed natural beauty of the spot never failed to soothe William’s soul, but today he found an even deeper peace.

They had spread their blanket near the cliff, taking advantage of the gathering shade as the sun, it heat still merciless despite the waning of the afternoon, shifted behind them. Elizabeth leaned back against William’s body, her head resting on his shoulder, his arms encircling her waist from behind. They had said little since finishing their impromptu snack, but it was a comfortable silence. He was content to gaze at the turbulent ocean while he savored the silent communion flowing between them.

She raised her wine glass, swallowing the final sip.

“More wine?” he asked, struggling to reach for the bottle but hampered by Elizabeth’s recumbent position against him.

“That’s okay; I’ll get it,” she said. “Want some?”

“I’d better not.” He felt pleasantly lethargic; more wine might send him into a stupor.

She refilled her glass and then snuggled back against him with a blissful sigh. “This is pure heaven. Why isn’t there someone who’s willing to pay me a nice salary just to sit on the beach with you?”

“There is, but I’d gotten the impression that you don’t want me supporting you.”

“Oops.” She peeked over her shoulder at him. “I’ve said that kind of thing dozens of times before, but never to someone who could actually do it. I guess it falls into the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ category.”

He kissed the top of her head. Sometimes, with his weight of family responsibility and the demands of his career, he lost sight of the freedom of choice his wealth granted him. It was a freedom Elizabeth had never known, one that would require adjustment after her years of fierce self-reliance.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said slowly. “About last night.”

“This sounds bad.”

“Not really.” She pulled out of his embrace and knelt beside him on the blanket. “You asked last night if you had behaved like—like Michael. And I said no. But I admit, you scared me a little. You were in a hurry, and you were a bit rough, I guess.”

He seized her hand, holding it tightly. “I hurt you. I knew it. That’s the last thing I ever wanted to—”

She pressed two fingers against his lips, silencing him. “You didn’t hurt me. But I associate that sort of alpha male behavior with Michael. And I did start to flash back to that night.”

Swamped with remorse, he clumsily gathered her into his arms. “Cara, I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again.”

“But the thing is, I focused on you, and how different you are from Michael, and how I know you’d never hurt me. Before long I wasn’t afraid anymore, and then I didn’t want you to stop.”

“You mean you’ve learned a way to beat the flashbacks?”

“Diane, the counselor, taught me a few techniques I can try. And they worked—this time, anyway.”

“Thank God.” He pressed her head to his chest. “Because I’d promise never to touch you again rather than risk causing you that kind of pain.”

“That’s the last thing I want. I like it when you touch me.” She glanced up, her eyes gleaming. “And don’t start treating me with kid gloves. It’s not necessary.”

He remained unconvinced, but he knew that arguing with her was pointless. “Are you still seeing the counselor?”

She nodded. “In fact, she’s the reason I finally called you.”

“Oh?”

“Uh huh. I’d gotten your letter and I wanted to call, but I couldn’t let you control my life.”

His jaw muscles tightened. He still harbored resentment over the time it had taken her to respond to his letter. “Lizzy, you’re the most independent woman I’ve ever known. I don’t think the man has been born who could control you.”

“Michael did, that night.”

William winced and his eyes dropped to the blanket. He ran a finger along the diamond pattern in the weave, trying to distract himself from feeling like an insensitive jackass.

“I swore I’d never let a man take control away from me again. It’s ironic, because Diane helped me to see that every time I pushed a man away to protect myself, I handed control of my life over to Michael and allowed him to go on hurting me. Especially where you were concerned.”

Curiosity trumped his self-recriminations and his eyes flew to her face, but he waited in silence for an explanation.

“We had some big things to work out,” she continued. “And even though you apologized in your letter, it didn’t sound like you really understood everything.”

Anger flashed through him. “How was I supposed to understand when you wouldn’t talk to me?”

“I know,” she said, stroking his arm. “I’m just explaining my thought processes at the time. I was afraid we’d get back together and nothing would be different. And sooner or later I’d either have to say a permanent goodbye, or else I’d lose myself.”

“What changed your mind?”

“Diane helped me to see that I was holding you to an impossible standard. You were supposed to read my mind and intuitively understand what you did wrong. And meanwhile, I had pushed away a wonderful man who loved me, and who would do almost anything for me.”

“Absolutely.”

“Which, as anyone thinking rationally would have realized, meant that you’d probably be willing to work toward a compromise.”

“Of course.”

“Right. Except that rationality hasn’t been my strong suit for the past couple of weeks.” She touched his cheek. Bathsheba beach “I know you suffered as a result of my foot-dragging, and I’m truly sorry.”

“You’re completely forgiven.” He bent his head for a kiss.

It wasn’t quite the truth. He hated knowing that she hadn’t loved and trusted him enough to forgive him sooner. But he supposed it was the same for her. His transgressions had probably inflicted wounds too deep to vanish overnight. At least now they could heal together.

She leaned back against him, burrowing into his chest like a contented kitten, and they fell silent again. The shadows deepened as the rays of the late afternoon sun slanted across the beach. William watched a surfer rise up on a towering wave. “What’s happening with Jane and Charles?”

Carmel, California “Oh, gosh, I meant to tell you earlier. She said they had a wonderful time in Carmel.”

Pebble Beach golf course“Did they play Pebble Beach?” The famous golf course overlooked the ocean about an hour south of San Francisco, not far from the charming seaside town of Carmel.

“They tried, but they couldn’t get a tee time. They’re back in town now and they’re going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.”

William suppressed a shudder. Poor Charles, spending the day plagued by Mrs. Bennet’s nonsensical babble, uttered in that fingernails-on-the-chalkboard voice. “Will your other sisters be there?”

“Kitty and Mary will, but if Lydia has anything better to do she’ll probably stay in LA.”

He limited his response to a small, non-committal grunt. Lydia’s presence would have taken the day from “unpleasant” to “excruciating” on the pain chart.

“Speaking of Thanksgiving,” she said, “we need to talk about the rest of this week.”

“Good idea. Would you like to invite the Gardiners here? The meal may not have all the traditional trimmings—they obviously don’t celebrate American-style Thanksgiving here—but I know Mrs. Shepherd will do her best.”

“I think you should eat your turkey in New York.”

“No, it’ll taste much better here.” He tightened his arms around her.

“Won’t your grandmother be furious?”

“She’ll forgive me eventually, and right now I need to be with you.”

“But isn’t your grandmother going to blame me if you don’t show up? And that could just make things worse in the long run.”

“Lizzy, we deserve some time alone together.”

She wriggled out of his arms and turned to face him. “Maybe there’s an early-morning flight on Thanksgiving. That would still give us the rest of today and all of tomorrow alone together.”

“That’s not much time.”

“Will you at least think about it?”

He nodded glumly, his eyes tracking a cargo ship on the horizon. She was right and he knew it, despite his best efforts at denial. Gran would hold Elizabeth responsible for his absence, and Georgiana deserved consideration too. Emotionally depleted from exhaustion and heartache, he had barely said hello to her on his arrival home from Australia, and he had left for Barbados the next morning while she slept. But to leave Elizabeth—no, he couldn’t,. “If I decide to go, will you come with me?”

“Of course.” She reached up to smooth his wind-ruffled hair. “You didn’t think I’d let you leave here without me, did you?”

He grabbed her and tumbled her back onto the blanket. “I love you,” he murmured, leaning over her.

“Right back at you.” She threaded her arms around his neck. “And now, why don’t you kiss me?”

William was happy to oblige.

 

The citronella candles didn’t completely ward off the insects darting about the garden, but dinner in the gazebo was a success all the same. William’s thoughts echoed Elizabeth’s earlier remark about the Garden of Eden. Despite their closeness to the house, the exotic foliage surrounding the gazebo wrapped them in cozy seclusion, and Barbados’s whistling tree frogs provided music fitting to the atmosphere.

When Mrs. Shepherd came out to clear their dinner dishes and deliver two helpings of piña colada cheesecake, she announced her departure for the night. William bid her an enthusiastic farewell, wondering how the kindly woman had managed to read his mind.

Elizabeth popped a bite of cheesecake into her mouth, a blissful expression on her face. She glowed in the candlelight, auburn highlights glimmering in her hair as it floated around her bare shoulders, ruffled gently by the balmy night air.

“I don’t even want to think about how many calories I just consumed,” she declared, setting her fork on her empty dessert plate.

William nodded. “Mrs. Shepherd’s food is not for the nutritionally faint of heart.”

“Oh, like you have to worry. She’s probably trying to fatten you up.”

His frequent workouts in Australia, combined with a finicky appetite caused by his broken heart, had left him with a closet full of trousers that hung loose on his hips. “But I try to watch what I eat for the sake of my heart.”

Elizabeth grimaced and rolled her eyes. “I am too stupid to walk the earth. I can’t believe I forgot about that.”

“I’m glad you did. I don’t want you dwelling on my health.”

“But you need to take care of yourself, especially since I suppose your busy schedule starts up soon.”

“Not until January. With all the productions of Messiah and the Christmas pops concerts, December is usually a slow month for me. When will you be done at the conservatory?”

“My grades are due on the 21st.”

He hesitated, choosing his words with care. “Are you still willing to consider moving to New York?”

She must have sensed his anxiety, because she scooted her chair closer to his and grasped his hand. “Yes. I love San Francisco, and I love being with Jane. But I love you even more.”

“I wish you didn’t have to choose.”

“Me too, but I understand. You have responsibilities there, so that’s where you need to live. Which means I need to live there too.”

Triumph flared in his eyes, and he reached for her, but she raised a warning hand. “There’s just one thing. Once I decided to leave the conservatory I needed a job starting in January.”

“You’ll find something in New York. With all the universities there—”

“But openings in the middle of the school year are rare.”

“Then you’ll find something in September.” And in the meantime she could travel with him. He bit back the suggestion; she would bristle at the idea of relying on him for support.

“Also, when I started job hunting I wasn’t thinking about New York. We weren’t on good terms at the time.”

“But now things are different.” He speared the last bite of cheesecake on his fork.

“But, you see, almost as soon as I started thinking about a new job, Jim Pennington heard about an opening from one of his friends. A job at a private school.”

William’s fork froze halfway to his mouth. “Wait a minute. Are you saying you took another job out there?”

She wrinkled her nose and nodded. “Just temporarily, as a substitute for a teacher going on maternity leave.”

“Until when?”

“Late February, though they said there might be an opportunity for me to stay on permanently.”

This was a disaster. “But—”

“Don’t worry.” She rested her hand on his arm. “I’ll tell them I’m not interested in anything long-term, and I’ll move to New York as soon as the regular teacher comes back. I can wait tables out there while I look for a teaching job.”

Not in a million years. William refused to stand by and watch his woman waiting on people and lugging heavy trays of food. Furthermore, he could hear the snide tone of the inevitable item in the New York Post’s gossip column: “From the Now We’ve Seen It All Department: Yet another reason to dine in the Village. Your server may be none other than the ladylove of one of New York’s most eligible bachelors. Why is he making her sing for her supper when he could afford to buy the restaurant?”

He opened his mouth to rebuff her ghastly suggestion. But then it dawned on him that his own actions, in interfering in her career, had reduced her to this fate. “You really think it’ll come to that?” he asked, as gently as he could.

She shrugged. “I’ve done it before, not so long ago, in fact. But you’re going to hate it, aren’t you?”

He thought it best not to answer. “Maybe something else will turn up.” Or maybe he would find a way to convince her to travel with him. Again he restrained himself from mentioning the possibility. “Shall we go back to the house now?”

“Could we take a short walk in the garden first?”

“Of course.” He pushed back his chair and rose, intending to help her to her feet, but she was already standing, smoothing her dress.

She tucked her arm into the crook of his elbow and they strolled in the direction of the lily pond. Small lights nestled into the ground illuminated the path, the interplay of light and shadow transforming the garden into a secret haven for lovers. “This is the most romantic place I’ve ever seen,” she breathed. “And the most beautiful.”

He sighed. “I wish we could stay here by ourselves for the next 50 years or so.”

They had reached the pond, an expanse of blackness adorned by flickers of reflected light. She stopped walking and turned to face him, her hands sliding along his arms toward his shoulders. “Are you afraid we’ll have problems once we’re back in the real world?”

“I just got you back, and I don’t want to risk losing you.”

“I think if we keep the promises we made last night, we’re going to be fine.”

Her arms went around his neck, her fingers stroking the nape. The light touch traveled to every nerve ending in his body. He felt the gentle pressure of her hands against his neck and responded immediately, dipping his head to kiss her. “Mmm, you taste good,” he murmured against her mouth, wrapping her in his arms.

“What would you like to do this evening?” she asked when at last he dragged his mouth away from hers.

William had considered several scenarios, all of which exploited the empty house with its twenty unoccupied rooms and a tantalizing assortment of horizontal surfaces. “I have only one condition. Whatever we do, it must involve as little clothing as possible.”

“Well, it’s a warm evening. Why don’t we go for a swim?”

He raised an eyebrow. The images summoned by her suggestion stole his breath, though one key point needed clarification. “I like that idea, as long as you understand that my ’little clothing’ rule won’t allow bathing suits.”

“You were thinking of birthday suits instead?” She might have blushed, but in the near-darkness he couldn’t be sure.

“Precisely.” He tipped his head and gave her a crooked grin he hoped was seductive.

After a pause, she said, “I’ve always wanted to try skinny-dipping.”

“Excellent. Let’s go.” He took her hand and strode down the path leading out of the garden.

“Well, cheese-on-bread, you’re in a hurry!”

He chuckled, both at her use of the peculiar Bajan slang expression and at her surprise, but didn’t break his brisk stride. “You just offered me a chance to see you naked and wet. If that doesn’t warrant swift action, I don’t know what does.”