William fought the urge to pout as he hung up his overcoat. He had imagined a hero’s welcome awaiting him at the hotel, befitting a conquering Caesar swaggering back to Rome. According to his script, his Cleopatra should have dashed down the hall and leapt into his waiting arms. Instead, the suite was silent, the living room dark, and his arms empty, with no Cleopatra, leaping or otherwise, in sight.

Perhaps he’d find her in the bedroom, maybe even in bed, suitably undressed. With renewed vigor, he strode down the hall. But aside from the gold-wrapped chocolate mint reclining on each pillow, both the bed and the room were unoccupied. Then he heard splashing coming from the bathroom.

4 seasons bathHe followed the sound and stumbled onto one of his favorite fantasies come to life. Candlelight bathed the long, narrow chamber, ghostly shadows flitting across the walls. A silver ice bucket on the counter cradled a bottle of champagne. But best of all …

“Hi there,” Elizabeth said softly. She lounged in the tub, playing with the islets of bubbles floating on the water’s surface.

Eat your heart out, Caesar.

“Hello.” His eyes slid across her shoulders and then downward. She glanced down and sank into the water, corralling a screen of bubbles to hide herself from view.

He crouched beside the tub, inhaling the mingled scents of jasmine and vanilla. “It’s no use. Even if the water were deep enough to cover you completely, those bubbles aren’t going to last forever.” He grinned. “And I’m willing to wait as long as necessary.”

With a rueful smile, she shifted upright. Bubbles cascaded over her body, her skin gleaming in the candlelight. He swallowed hard, and his eyes all but leapt from their sockets and into the tub. Once again, it had taken her less than thirty seconds to reduce him to a mindless idiot, frothing helplessly at the mouth. So much for William the Conqueror.

“Pretty pathetic, isn’t it?” she said, with a short, awkward laugh.

“What?” Had she read his mind?

“I decide to seduce you, and then I try to wear a robe made of bubbles so you can’t see me.”

He grinned and forced his eyes up to her face. “You aren’t going to have any trouble seducing me, cara.”

“So you’re saying you’re easy?”

“Absolutely, where you’re concerned.” He traced a path along her neck and downward, drawing a lazy circle on one foam-flecked breast. He bent forward, balancing on the edge of the tub, and brushed his lips against hers.

She settled back, leaning her head against the rim of the tub. “Tell me more about your talk with your grandmother.”

He had called her before leaving the townhouse, but had given her only a quick summary of his conversation with Rose. “I’ll tell you later. Right now I’d rather focus on the mermaid in my tub. Where did you get bubble bath? Or this?” He reached for the large sea sponge sitting on the tile deck behind her head.

“The hotel spa had all sorts of goodies.”

“Clever girl.”

“And the concierge dug up the candles and recommended the champagne.”

“Remind me to tip him handsomely,” he said, dipping the sponge in the water.

“Her.”

“Whatever.” He rubbed her back and shoulders with the sponge.

She bent forward, sighing softly. “Do you think this tub is big enough for two?”

“As long as we don’t mind being very close together.”

“That’s the general idea.”

He leaned down and kissed her again. Then he hauled himself to his feet. “I’ll get us some champagne.” He poured two glasses and returned to perch on the edge of the tub. “To us.”

“To you, for figuring out how to get through to your grandmother.”

“You had as much to do with that as I did.”

“Then, to us it is. We make a good team.”

“Yes, we do.” They clinked glasses, and William sipped his champagne.

“Are you going to join me?” she asked, trailing a finger over his free hand where it rested on the edge of the tub.

“Absolutely.” He rose to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the bedroom, to take off my clothes.”

“Stop right there. If you think you’re going to deprive me of the chance to watch you undress …” She twisted sideways and leaned her elbows on the edge of the tub, her chin propped on one hand. “Start unbuttoning, big guy. Don’t keep a girl waiting.”

Had he not been wearing one of his favorite sport coats, he might have clambered into the tub fully clothed and gathered her into his arms. Instead, he kissed her with his eyes. “Just let me hang up my jacket and slacks. After that I’ll be happy to finish the job right here.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Will. Take a walk on the wild side for once, and risk getting wrinkled.”

Wait a minute. Lizzy is naked and wet, and I’m thinking about the welfare of my clothes? I must be insane. He slipped off his jacket and held it awkwardly in one hand, scanning the room for a safe resting place.

She shook her head slowing, smiling. “You can’t help yourself, can you? Why don’t you hang it over the doorknob? I think it’ll be safe there for a while.”

He took her suggestion, wincing as he imagined the jacket slipping off the knob and landing in a heap on the floor.

She waved her champagne glass in his direction. “Besides, I know you. You’ve had it on for more than five minutes, so it’ll be off to the cleaners first thing in the morning. You know, they are capable of pressing out wrinkles.”

“I can’t help it. Mrs. Reynolds taught me to treat my clothing with respect.”

“Fair enough,” she said with a tiny smirk. “And I suppose that jacket is worth more than the GNP of several small island nations.”

He ignored the jibe and stepped out of his shoes. “What next?”

“Come over here and I’ll show you.”

She reached for a towel and dried her hands. With a mischievous smile, she rose up on her knees, unbuckled his belt, and attacked his zipper. She ran a finger along the fly of his boxers, and for a hopeful moment he thought she might slip her hand through the opening. But instead she sat back in the tub, and for the second time that evening he felt the urge to pout. He removed his trousers and looped them over the towel bar, folding them on the crease with precision.

“My own personal William Darcy striptease,” she murmured. “I must have missed the part where I died and went to heaven.” She fumbled for her champagne without taking her eyes off him, nearly knocking the glass on its side.

He contributed a near mishap of his own, almost crashing to the floor while attempting to remove his socks. Chastened, and mildly stung by her merry laughter, he shuffled backward and propped himself against the counter to finish the job. Then he went to work on his shirt. Her avid gaze inspired him to remove the garment slowly, rubbing the cool polished surface of each button before slipping it through its buttonhole.

“You’re a tease,” she said.

“Isn’t that why they call it a striptease? I hope that wasn’t a complaint.”

“Definitely not.”

Her smiles turned to giggles when he tried to pull off the shirt and discovered that he’d forgotten to remove his cufflinks, trapping his hands in the sleeves. After some undignified flapping of his arms, he finally untangled himself.

She shook her head, still laughing. “You’re so cute.”

“Cute.” He planted his hands on his hips and blew air through his nose. “So much for driving you mad with my sexy disrobing act.”

“Oh, don’t worry. You’re plenty sexy.” Her eyes dropped to his boxers. “Well?”

“Well what?” He could feel her gaze like a warm hand on his body.

“Aren’t you going to take those off?” Her tongue slid out of her mouth to moisten her lips.

His brain popped a circuit breaker as his body conjured up the sensation of that soft pink tongue moistening … other things. Swallowing hard, he hooked his thumbs inside the elastic waist of his boxers and inched the garment over his hips and down his legs.

“Speaking of a view I never get tired of seeing,” she murmured as he stepped toward the tub. “You should be cast in bronze … or marble.”

He felt an absurd impulse to strike a heroic pose, but he knew it would only provoke her laughter. “I can’t imagine a modern-day Michelangelo thinking I was a good model.”

“Don’t argue with a compliment.” She ran a hand along his hip and thigh, setting his skin tingling.

After some maneuvering, they managed to settle into a reclining position in the tub. Elizabeth leaned back against William’s chest, wrapped in the circle of his arms. He exhaled slowly, resting his head against the rim of the tub. “The perfect antidote for a stressful day.”

“Mmm.” She lifted his hand from her waist and toyed with his fingers. “You have the most beautiful hands.” She pressed a kiss to his palm.

His eyes drifted shut as he savored a banquet of sensual delights. Water lapped at his arms and chest, literally bathing him in fragrant warmth. A cold glass of champagne sat within reach, bubbles rising in the pale amber liquid and breaking the surface with a soft “fizz.” An exquisitely feminine body rested against his, warm and tender and his to explore at his leisure. His legs were a bit cramped in the confined space, but sometimes small sacrifices were necessary in pursuit of the greater good.

Best of all, in the unlikely event that he tired of these pleasures, a plush bed with crisp cotton sheets awaited, covers turned back and pillows fluffed. I bet when Caesar marched back to Rome there were no chocolates on his pillow.

“What’s so funny?” She nipped his index finger.

“I’m happy.” He drew his hand from her grasp and caressed her neck. She had piled most of her hair on top of her head, but a few tendrils escaped. He twined one lazily around his index finger.

“I talked to Jane while you were gone.”

“How are she and Charles doing?”

“Really well. She sounded so happy.”

“I’m glad.” Besides being happy for Charles, William had a selfish interest in the reconciliation. The sooner Jane and Charles were fully reunited, the sooner he could release his guilt on that score. “How was their Thanksgiving?”

“She said it was good. Mom was ecstatic to see Charles, of course.”

The words “Poor Charles” nearly burst from William’s lips. To give his mouth something less dangerous to do, he nipped her ear lobe. She squirmed against him, causing several hundred nerve endings to fire in his lower body. Yes, this was as close to nirvana as he ever expected to get.

“This might be a good time to tell me about your talk with your grandmother,” she said.

He would have preferred to sink into a sensual haze, but out of deference to her curiosity he described the conversation, ending with Rose’s invitation to lunch.

“Lunch sounds fine, as long as you promise that Catherine de Bourgh won’t be joining us.” Elizabeth scooped up a handful of water and drizzled it over William’s arm.

He grinned. “I said the same thing. But even if Gran wanted Catherine there—and she doesn’t—I doubt Catherine would deign to come near the townhouse after what happened yesterday.”

“Oh, please.” Elizabeth snickered. “If she saw a chance of getting back in your good graces without sacrificing her pride, she wouldn’t hesitate. She’d camp out in the garden waiting to talk to you—in a Gucci tent, of course—if she thought it would help.”

“She’d be wasting her time. After my recital next month, I’m done with her.”

“What about your pledge to fund a person to replace me next semester?”

“I’m still going to do that, because I said I would. Besides, if I didn’t, she might take it out on you.”

Elizabeth shrugged. “She’ll do that no matter what. I’m sure she blames me for everything that happened.”

His stomach lurched. “I’m sorry, cara. I wish I could do something to protect you.”

“It’s okay. In a few weeks the semester will be over, and I won’t have to see her anymore. I suppose for a while she’ll bad-mouth me to every music school dean she meets, but if I’m lucky, she’ll get bored and move on eventually.” She dabbed at the bubbles floating past.

He tightened his arms around her and sighed.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said softly, stroking his hand. “Please don’t start obsessing over this.”

“I won’t.” He suspected that he had just told a lie. “But I hate watching you suffer because of my actions.”

She peeked at him over her shoulder. “Do I look like I’m suffering?”

He chuckled in spite of himself and bent forward, pressing a line of kisses to her shoulder.

“Seriously,” she said, “don’t beat yourself up. We agreed to look ahead, not backward. Right?”

“Right.” But he longed for the power to turn back time.

“Anything else important from your talk with your grandmother?” She rubbed her leg against his in a sinuous motion.

All the blood drained from his head, thundering in the opposite direction. He struggled to latch onto a few functioning brain cells. “I don’t think so.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t make any remarks about us living in sin here at the hotel.”

“Actually, she did,” he mumbled, leaving his mouth to fend for itself while his fingers curved around her breasts. They felt wonderful in his hands, smooth and firm and—

“She did?” Elizabeth sat upright and twisted around to face him. A miniature tsunami slapped against the edges of the tub.

Oh oh. “She only mentioned it because of Georgie.”

“What does Georgie have to do with this?”

“She’s at a dangerous age, and if she uses our example as an endorsement of sleeping around—”

“Sleeping around?” Elizabeth practically snarled the words.

He slammed his brain back into gear. Obviously he was going to be needing it. “Cara, wait. That’s not what I meant.”

“Is it what she meant?”

“No, not at all. But Gran doesn’t believe in sex outside of marriage, and of course she wants Georgie to adopt the same moral code. So when someone close to Georgie … behaves differently—”

“So what are you saying? That she doesn’t want Georgie tainted by her brother’s low-born slut of a girlfriend?”

His stomach lurched. He was in no mood for a fight, but he seemed to have no choice in the matter. “Of course that’s not what I’m saying. You’re blowing this out of proportion. Gran only meant that—”

“What about Richard? Talk about someone who sleeps around! For that matter, what about you? I’m sure it didn’t escaped Georgie’s notice that sometimes her brother didn’t get home from a date until after breakfast. And I doubt she thought you’d been at up all night playing Scrabble. Or was that morally acceptable because your conquests were all rich girls?”

He fought a flash of annoyance at both her unreasonable anger and her insinuations about his past. He was tired of defending himself on that score. “As I’ve told you before, Gran maintained an official position of ignorance about where I spent my nights. That allowed her to believe that Georgie was oblivious.”

Elizabeth blew air through her lips. “Oh, please.”

“I know. Gran has been deluding herself, but it’s been a comfortable delusion. Unfortunately, by having Georgie meet us at the hotel this morning, I destroyed the deniability shield.”

She paused and took a deep breath. Relief flowed through his veins when he saw her expression soften. “Okay. I can sort of see that,” she said in a softer voice. “But it sounds like this is more about your grandmother’s feelings than about Georgie.”

“Maybe so, but Gran is entitled to her own views on the subject.”

“Aren’t you old enough to make your own choices?”

“Of course, and I pointed that out to her.” He raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m here with you now.”

Her lips pulled up in a reluctant smile. “I did notice that.”

He caressed her cheek. “I told Gran that my place was with you. The only concession I made was to agree to talk to Georgie, to explain that there’s a difference between a casual affair and a serious, loving relationship.”

Elizabeth pursed her lips and stared at him. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He frowned. “Don’t you believe there’s a difference?”

“Of course I do. But I can’t see you sitting Georgie down to explain the difference.”

“I know it won’t be easy, but I thought you could help me figure out what to say.”

“I’ll tell you exactly what to say. Nothing. You’re the wrong person to have this conversation with her. At least, I assume you’re not the one she confides in about private stuff.”

“Until recently, we’ve been able to talk about all sorts of things.”

“All sorts of things, but probably not everything.” She raised her eyebrows. “Did you help her choose her first bra? Tell her what to do when she got her period for the first time?”

“Of course not. That would have been …” He shuddered.

“Precisely.” The triumphant note in Elizabeth’s voice rankled his pride, but he recognized good sense when he heard it. “If you try to sit her down and explain the difference between sex and love, she’ll be too embarrassed to hear a word of it. She needs to spend time with you, but not with the two of you staring at the floor, or out the window, or anywhere but at each other.”

He couldn’t disagree; the prospect of such a conversation had given him a sour stomach. “Then what do I do instead? ”

“Who does Georgie go to for those sorts of things?”

“I don’t know. Gran, I suppose. Or maybe Aunt Eleanor.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Probably her friends first, but if she needs an adult’s advice, I’d bet on your aunt. She’s younger than your grandmother and much more approachable.”

“All right, then. I’ll talk to Aunt Eleanor and see what she thinks.” He sighed. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

She shook her head and resumed her original position lying back against his chest. “It’s okay. I overreacted. I’m kind of touchy about … well, lots of things related to your grandmother.”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her about you. If you give her a chance, I think you’ll grow fond of her.”

“You poor thing.” She laced her fingers through his. “I bet you’re getting tired of refereeing.”

“It’s all right. You’re a pair of strong-willed women. I should have known this would take some time. Though if it’s still going on a year from now …”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll have come to an understanding —or killed each other—by then.”

He snorted. “How comforting.”

She laughed softly and burrowed against him, her head pillowed on his shoulder. His hands wandered, drifting along her stomach in lazy circles and sweeping lightly over her thighs. He closed his eyes and yawned. For the first time he noticed the soft, irregular plop of water droplets falling lazily from the faucet. The tang of jasmine filled his nostrils. He would have to shower carefully in the morning, lest he go out in public smelling like a tropical garden.

“I wish we could stay here forever,” she said softly.

“In this city, this suite, or this bathtub?”

She shrugged. “All of the above. Though I guess if we never get out of the tub we’ll turn into human prunes.”

He opened his eyes halfway, too lazy to pull the lids up completely. “What a frightening prospect. I’d better make sure you’re not getting all wrinkly.” His hands curved around her breasts. “And this seems like a good place to start.”

 

William’s meticulous search for wrinkles had left Elizabeth alternately giggling and sighing in bliss. “You have a real talent for this,” she said, the giggles winning out as he rubbed her foot over both of his. “Do I pass inspection?”

“You have my seal of approval,” he rumbled in her ear. “But I think I’d better double-check some spots.”

His hands gripped her ticklish waist. She flinched and tried to wrestle away from him, banging her elbow against the side of the tub. A bolt of pain shot through her arm. “Ow!”

He ceased tickling her at once and sat forward, cupping her shoulders. “I’m sorry, cara. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know,” she said through gritted teeth, rubbing her throbbing elbow. “But maybe we ought to move someplace a little less cramped.” The tub, both deeper and larger than her bathtub at home, had looked large enough for two earlier that evening as she lit candles and sprinkled bath salts into the water. But now she felt like a sardine—though she had to admit that the average sardine can didn’t come equipped with a divinely sexy naked man.

The naked man in question squeezed her shoulder gently and kissed her neck. “I’d offer to kiss your elbow and make it feel better, but—”

“I know. We’d have to be contortionists to manage that.”

She rose to her feet with some help from William and dove for a towel, wrapping it tightly around herself. He followed her out, looping his towel carelessly around his neck. He retrieved one of the hotel’s plush terrycloth robes and offered it to her with a formal bow. “For you, madam.”

“Why, thank you, Jeeves.” He was the perfect incarnation of a proper English butler—at a nudist colony.

He helped her into the robe and bent down to nuzzle her neck. “Mmmm,” he whispered. “You’re so soft, and you smell delicious.”

She turned to face him, pressing a kiss to his chest just above his heart. “So do you.” His skin was warm, beads of moisture gleaming on his chest.

“I know.” He chuckled. “If Richard caught a whiff of me right now I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Luckily, Richard isn’t here.”

“Amen to that.” He stepped back and reached for the towel around his neck.

She took the towel from his hands. “Allow me.”

“Be my guest,” he replied with a rakish grin.

She began with his neck, patting it with the towel and following up with her lips. Next she worked her way over his shoulders and down his arms, ending by nibbling his fingers. Heat radiated from his eyes, and he pulled her against him for a long, melting kiss.

When at last he released her, she turned her attention to his torso, admiring his Australian—and Caribbean—tan. “Would you consider going back to Australia some day?” she asked.

“With you? Absolutely. Of course, in my imagination we’ve already been there together.”

“Oh, really?” She moved behind him to dry his back. His shoulder blade demanded to be kissed, and she complied, grinning at the floral scent clinging to his skin. William was right—Richard would have stored up sufficient comic material for weeks to come, like a squirrel storing nuts for winter, had he smelled his cousin at this moment.

“Absolutely. You attended every concert I gave—sat right in the front row—and we toured the city together.”

“It sounds like I had a good time. ”

“You even went to the beach with me and sunbathed topless.”

“Well, that proves it wasn’t real.”

“I don’t know. Some day I’m going to insist on seeing that fantasy brought to life.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

“Why not? I go to the beach topless all the time.” He tossed a mischievous grin over his shoulder.

“Very funny.” She pinched his buttocks lightly, and then stroked the sexy side dimples he had earned through hours of jogging. She had been right that first day at the airport—a world-class set of hind quarters had been hiding under his jeans.

Next she perched on the edge of the tub. “Give me a foot.”

He propped his foot on her knee, swaying briefly before he steadied himself. “We’re living dangerously here.”

“In other words, I’d better not do anything to challenge your balance, like tickling you?”

He raised one eyebrow. “Not unless you want to explain it to the paramedics.”

“I’ll pass.” His foot was elongated and slender, like the rest of him. She patted it dry, toying with his toes. “It’s going to take me all night to dry this much acreage,” she teased.

“I beg your pardon.” He attempted a fearsome glare, but a smile peeked out from behind his scowl.

“You know, your imperious act would be a lot more convincing if you weren’t naked and dripping all over the floor.”

He snickered and reclaimed his foot, placing the other one on her knee.

Humming to herself, she finished with his foot and worked her way up his legs. Then she set the towel aside. “All done.”

“Wait a minute.” He crossed his arms over his chest, and stared down at her, a smug tilt to his lips. “You know perfectly well you haven’t dried me everywhere yet.”

“Here’s the towel. You can catch any spots I missed.” She donned a guileless mask.

“But …” A vertical line creased his forehead.

In spite of his brilliant mind, he could be remarkably gullible at times. She ran a finger up the inside of his thigh, struggling not to laugh. “Did you have a particular spot in mind?”

His body responded to her touch, offering an explicit answer to her question. “And you called me a tease earlier,” he grumbled.

She studied the jutting column of flesh, its color deepening to a rosy blush as though it found the attention embarrassing. Water droplets clung to its velvet-skinned head. Acting on impulse, she leaned forward and delicately licked them off. He sucked in a harsh breath and stepped closer. Liquid warmth flowed inside her as she bent forward to taste him again. His hands dropped to her head and he exhaled a long sigh.

It was only her second experience with this act, but his reactions the first time had relieved her worries about her lack of skill. This time she engulfed herself in the experience: the tug of his fingers curling in her hair, his ragged breaths and husky groans, the soft hairs tickling her hands as she scratched her fingernails lightly over his thighs. And most of all, the salty taste of him, and the way he seemed to swell with each pull of her lips, each flick of her tongue.

“Lizzy, please, stop,” he rasped.

She drew back, staring up at him. “Why? I thought you were enjoying yourself.”

A laugh tore from his throat. “But I wanted tonight to be about you, and—” His words were swept away by an impassioned groan when she returned to her task with even greater enthusiasm.

He made no further attempt to stop her. Every sound he made, even the smallest sigh, sent a tendril of desire curling around her spine. As the minutes passed, his grip on her head tightened, and she sensed him fighting the urge to drive himself deeper. The muscles of his thighs and buttocks clenched under her caressing hands, his hips twitching to the accompaniment of shallow, tortured breaths. She glanced up and saw him staring down at her, his eyes glassy, and an intoxicating burst of power surged through her. She loved knowing that she could drive him to plead for release, to cry out in delirious ecstasy as he did moments later, his hips driving forward in tandem with his groans.

Afterwards he stood still, his eyelids drooping, his neck bowed as if it might collapse from the weight of his head. “Lizzy,” he sighed, and he grasped her arms, coaxing her to stand. He cupped her face in his hands, the tenderness in his eyes more eloquent than any words. She bit her lip, fighting the unexpected tears that burned her eyes. Then he gathered her into his arms. “Lizzy,” he whispered against her hair. She buried her face against his shoulder, inhaling his warm, clean scent.

He exhaled a deep sigh that seemed to come from his soul. “What was that I said earlier, about the perfect antidote for a stressful day?” His chest vibrated beneath her ear.

“Sounds like I’d better get you to bed before you fall asleep on your feet,” she said.

“I’m nowhere near ready to sleep. But bed sounds like a wonderful idea.”

champagneWilliam collected the champagne bottle and their glasses, and Elizabeth chose the two largest candles, balancing them gingerly to avoid spilling the liquid wax pooled around their wicks. Soon she and William were bundled beneath the covers, the hotel chocolates melting on their tongues.

“This is much more comfortable,” she whispered.

“Mmm.” His hand skimmed over her hip in a regular, hypnotic rhythm.

Elizabeth lost track of the passage of time as they lay together in languorous peace. But a bitter tang crept into her contentment. In less than a week she’d become addicted to his warm, solid presence in her bed—and her life. Yet soon she would be back in California. Alone. She sighed.

“What’s wrong?” His deep voice held a husky note, and she wondered if he had been dozing.

“I was thinking about how much I’m going to miss you when I go back to San Francisco.”

William had decided that his relationships with Gran and Georgie might benefit from some extra time in New York. Elizabeth, in her best supportive-girlfriend mode, had endorsed his plan, but insidious second thoughts had begun to tap on her shoulder and whisper in her ear.

“I know,” he said softly, stroking her hair. “I don’t know how I’m going to let you go.”

“At least we still have tomorrow, and part of Sunday.” She smiled and touched his jaw. “And tonight.”

“Speaking of which …” He shifted to hover over her, pushing the covers out of the way as his hands meandered over her body. “It’s your turn now,” he whispered. “Relax and enjoy.”

But she couldn’t. She didn’t want to lie back passively, ceding him control of her body. She didn’t want to be admired and polished like a fragile gem. A hunger for something less decorous, something more elemental, clawed at her. She wanted to see his dark eyes burn, to feel his chest pressed against hers, to hear him utter her name in a voice rough with passion. She wanted to set them both on fire, and the hotter, the better.

She pried herself loose from his arms. Taking advantage of his momentary confusion, she pushed him onto his back and straddled him. “That’s more like it,” she murmured, lowering her head to his.

Despite his wide-eyed surprise at this reversal of control, his mouth opened eagerly under hers and his arms hauled her closer, crushing her against him. Yes, this was what she craved. She kneaded the muscles in his shoulders, taut and strong beneath her hands, and swept her tongue against his, savoring the hint of chocolate flavor lingering in his mouth. Then she sat up and stared at him greedily, contemplating her next move. It was hard to choose, with a delectable William Darcy buffet spread out beneath her.

The judgmental voice in her head—the one she always envisioned standing in a corner wearing a flawless black dress, a perfect strand of pearls, and a look of glacial disdain—chose that moment to speak. What on earth are you doing, climbing all over him this way? I guess your mother was right—you’ll never be a lady. Just imagine what he must be thinking of you right now.

But William’s expression held no disapproval. She saw fascination and a hint of admiration, along with a sizable helping of lust. She mentally stuck out her tongue at the voice. Go bother somebody else. My guy and I would like some privacy, if you don’t mind!

Her index finger meandered across his torso. “You have the most wonderful chest,” she sighed. “I know I tell you that all the time, but it’s true.”

His stomach muscles leapt as she traced a circle around his navel. “I take it my plans for you will have to wait till later,” he murmured, a lazy smile stealing across his face.

“Is that a problem?” She buried her lips against his chest, nibbling at his tiny puckered nipple.

He groaned softly and his hands swept down her back, cupping her buttocks. “No, but if you keep driving me crazy, I can’t be responsible for the consequences.”

“Promise?”

“What’s gotten into you tonight?” A glint of humor shone in his passion-darkened eyes. “Not that I’m complaining.”

She had no answer to his question; she was operating on pure instinct, seeking to fulfill a need that burned no less fiercely because she didn’t understand it. So she answered him in the only way she could. She pressed herself against him and kissed him with renewed fervor, drawing him into the center of a fiery nimbus where nothing existed but the two of them.

Much later, after the flames had consumed them, they lay together in the darkness, limbs entwined. She lazily traced the contours of his rib cage, which rose and fell in the regular rhythm of sleep. “You’re mine,” she whispered, echoing his words in Barbados.

 

Elizabeth yawned and rubbed her eyes. She wasn’t sure what had awakened her, but the sound of loud voices in the hallway offered a clue. It took her a moment to notice that William’s side of the bed was empty, the only trace of him a hint of his scent clinging to his pillow.

He stood by the window, his back to her. The interplay of illumination and shadow painted his body in tones from white to deep gray, highlighting his slender hipbone and resting on his shoulders like a pale mantel, yet leaving his back shrouded in dusky velvet. He might have been hewn from marble, smooth and still and coolly remote.

She threw back the covers and slipped into the discarded robe draped at the foot of the bed. When she reached his side, he offered her a wan smile. “I think you’re going to get your wish,” he said softly.

snow“You mean my walk in the snow? It sure looks that way. ” A riot of snowflakes fluttered past the window, and the ground below appeared, from this height at least, to be covered in white.

He nodded. “It’s been coming down hard for a while.”

“How long have you been standing here?”

“An ambulance woke me. On the way back from the bathroom I came over to take a quick look at the snow. I’ve been watching it ever since.” His voice sounded distant, almost dreamlike.

She reached for his hand, which rested against the window frame. “You’re cold.” She chafed his fingers. They were as chilly as the marble to which she had compared him.

He peeled open the lapels of her robe and drew her body against his. His chest felt warmer than his hand, but not by much. “Warm me up,” he whispered, dipping his head. His lips were cool too, but this was no kiss from a statue. His mouth brushed against hers repeatedly, gently but with a hint of desire held carefully in check.

They stood wrapped together, staring out at the wintry landscape. “Come back to bed,” she said. “I can warm you up much better there.” She took his hand and led him across the room. Once they were nestled together under the thick comforter, she drew his head to rest on her shoulder and stroked his hair.

He sighed and nuzzled her neck. “I’m feeling warmer already.”

“I bet your feet are freezing. I’d do something about it, but I can’t reach them.”

With a soft chuckle, he bent his knees, bringing his feet into range. She wrapped her own feet around them and gasped. “Good grief! Were you standing on a block of ice?”

“Feeling like you hopped in bed with a polar bear?”

“I can’t say I’ve ever thought of you as a polar bear. A big, cuddly teddy bear, maybe.”

He raised his head and eyed her, frowning. “As in, hairy with a pot belly?”

Her hand slid down to pat his flat abdomen. “Hardly.” She grinned. “I take it your teddy did a lot of snacking between meals?”

“Actually, I had a stuffed dog.”

“What was his name?”

“Beppe.”

“Aww, that’s so cute.”

“It’s Italian, a nickname for Giuseppe.”

“I bet you and Beppe were adorable all cuddled up together at night. Do you still have him?”

He wrapped himself around her, his head heavy against her breasts. “My mother kept him for years, but he must be long gone by now.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “I’m going to have to ask your grandmother to tell me ‘little William’ stories.”

“I knew it was a bad idea to get you two together,” he groaned. “Though she might be reluctant to share family stories outside the family, even with my girlfriend.”

“Then I’d better wait until—” She snapped her mouth shut half a second before it blundered into a minefield.

He lifted his head, and although she couldn’t see the expression in his eyes, she could almost hear his brain sliding letter tiles into their places, filling in the missing words.

“Anyway,” she said, anxious to change the subject, “tell me what made you stand at the window brooding while you turned into an ice sculpture.”

“Nothing in particular. Just … thoughts spinning in my head.”

“Such as?”

He frowned and pressed his lips together, but didn’t speak. She decided he needed a nudge. “Maybe if you tell me, you’ll be able to relax and get back to sleep.”

At first he was silent, and she thought she might have to prod him again. But then he spoke in a halting voice. “I was thinking about the future. Our future.”

So much for changing the subject. But if he was ready to talk about it, so was she. “I’ve been thinking about it too.”

He rolled onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow. “Lizzy, if you’re letting the things Gran said—about my parents, I mean—bother you, please don’t. It has nothing to do with us.”

“Then you don’t think I’m like your mother?”

He hesitated before answering, but when he spoke his voice was firm. “In some ways, I guess you are, but you’re different too. Besides, I’d never treat you the way my father treated her.”

The light from outside, filtered through thousands of snowflakes, wasn’t enough. For this conversation, she needed to be able to read every nuance of his expression. She sat up and turned on the bedside lamp, squinting into the sudden brightness. “How do you envision things working—with us, I mean—once I move back here?”

“Well, I …” He paused and shifted into a sitting position. She sensed that it was one of his characteristic delaying tactics, giving him a chance to select his words with care. “Everything is based on one rather large assumption.”

“Which is?”

“That you’ll eventually marry me.” A muscle twitched beside his eye. Her astonishment at his blunt statement—or was it a proposal?—must have shown on her face, because he rushed ahead, the words tumbling out in sharp contrast to his usual measured speech. “I’m not trying to pressure you into anything. We just got back together and we need time to build trust. But after that …” The stream of words ran dry, and he fell silent.

His intense questioning stare seemed to pin her against the pillows. Under this laser-like scrutiny, she doubted she could have framed any words but the ones he wanted to hear. Fortunately, they were also the ones she wanted to say. “I’ve been making the same assumption.”

His sweet, boyish smile would have weakened her knees had she been standing on them. She leaned over and kissed his cheek, its location so convenient to those gorgeous, smiling lips, lips that welcomed her with unmistakable enthusiasm.

That was the easy part. You know perfectly well there are far more complicated matters to deal with.

She blew a gust of air through her nose. The black-dress-and-pearls voice had returned, undaunted by her earlier dismissal. Good grief, she retorted, don’t we get to bask in the moment—I mean, for a second or two, anyway—before reality sets in?

But it had to be done, before her doubts festered into something worse. She cast about for an indirect opening. “Your grandmother knew that you had proposed. I was surprised you told her.”

“I didn’t intend to; it slipped out. She was trying to stop me from going to Barbados. She said some uncomplimentary things about you, all based on lies and half-truths from Catherine, and that made me angry. I told her that if you were truly after my money you wouldn’t have refused my proposal.”

She sighed. “I’m so glad we’re finally talking about this. We’ve discussed lots of other things, but never the proposal.”

“I don’t like thinking about it. When you gave me back the ring …” He paused and licked his lips.

“I know. That’s why I haven’t brought it up.” She ran her finger along his stubbly jaw. “The look in your eyes broke my heart. I’m so sorry I hurt you.”

“I deserved it. I know that now. But you can’t imagine how many nights I lay awake, hearing you say over and over that you didn’t trust me anymore.”

She grasped both his hands. “Please, let’s not talk about what we said then. We’re not the same people.”

“Maybe not. But I want the same things.”

“Like what?”

“To spend the rest of my life with you. To travel with you. To see our children grow up in the townhouse, like I did, but with parents who love each other.”

She hadn’t been prepared for such a heartfelt declaration. Something, perhaps the doubts that still lingered, shivered up her spine. “William …”

“I meant what I said. No pressure.” He cupped her face in his hand, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “I’ve learned the hard way that things between us work better when I let you set the pace. And I don’t think you’re quite ready yet.”

Was she? Probably not, considering the gargantuan butterflies lumbering around in her stomach. “Your grandmother doesn’t think I’m cut out to be a Darcy wife.”

“She’s wrong, and she’ll see that eventually.”

Elizabeth wished she felt as confident as William sounded. “She seems pretty sure of herself. So much so that she’s afraid I’m going to recoil in horror and drag you away from here.”

“She’s living in the past. When my grandfather was alive, she was one of the premiere hostesses in New York. I’m sure her skill in that area enhanced the family’s image. But these days we live quietly. Nobody’s going to expect you to give up everything you care about and devote your life to entertaining.”

“She might expect that. Maybe she wants to resurrect the past.”

“I don’t think so. And even if she did, why would I, of all people, want a social butterfly for a wife?”

She had been too busy worrying about his grandmother to consider that angle. “That’s true. It doesn’t seem like your style.”

“Of course not. I’m happier staying home with a good book. Or taking a bubble bath by candlelight.” He raised his eyebrows. “We’ll have to try that again some time. My bathtub at the townhouse is plenty big enough for two.”

“I remember.” She smiled. “When I saw it, I imagined myself stretched out in it with a glass of champagne in one hand.”

“Alone, or with company?”

“I’ll never tell. But you’re definitely invited.”

He chuckled. “With that sort of incentive to stay home, you’ll never get me out of the house.” Then he took her hand. “Seriously, there are some parties and events we’d be expected to attend, and once in a while we’d need to entertain. And you’d probably be invited to join the Opera Guild and so on. But it’s not an everyday thing. You might even enjoy it. After all, you actually like meeting new people and going to parties.”

“My idea of a party isn’t exactly a black tie affair.” Dread trembled up her spine at the vision of herself making small talk with condescending socialites on a nightly basis. But once in a while it would be—maybe not fun, but at least interesting. And, besides, it’s for him. “But I could handle it.”

“I’m sure you’d fit in better than I do.” He hesitated and glanced down at their clasped hands. “In fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m too dull for you.”

She stroked his jaw. “Of course not. I thought our time together in San Francisco was perfect. And not that we went to tons of parties, but when we did go, you seemed to enjoy yourself.”

“It’s different when I’m with you. I don’t feel so disconnected from other people.”

“I’m glad.” She sometimes wondered if she loved him in part because he needed her and didn’t mind admitting it. “Okay, so we’ll face the social whirl together. We’ll make a great team: you can make sure I don’t commit any major faux pas, and I’ll help you talk to people. Next question. Are you going to have a problem if I continue teaching?”

“Of course not.”

“Will your grandmother be able to show her face in society if she has a granddaughter-in-law with a paying job?”

He raised an imperious eyebrow. “I have a paying job.”

“Yeah, one with oodles of prestige. Much as I like teaching, it’s pretty ordinary compared to what you do. And what if I wanted to go back to musical theater some day, or to sing with a band or in a cabaret?”

“Do whatever makes you happy, as long as we’re together.”

“You say that now, but a minute ago you said you wanted me to travel with you.”

“Yes.”

“You mentioned it when you proposed, too. You wanted me to quit teaching so I could go with you on your trips.” She fixed a pointed stare on him. “That’s basically the same thing your father asked your mother to do, to give up her career for the sake of his. Plus, she’d already left Italy and her family to go with him to New York, just like I’m going to leave California and Jane.”

“Except my father didn’t ask. He demanded.” William sighed. “I know you’re going to miss Jane and Charlotte and your family when you move back here. I mentioned that to Gran earlier this evening, but maybe I haven’t told you how much it means to me that you’re doing it for my sake.”

“It’s okay. I know Georgie and your grandmother need you.” But she had needed to know that he didn’t take her sacrifice for granted.

“As for the job, I know you can’t really travel with me if you’re teaching. But I still wish that you could.”

She could hardly object to that sentiment. “Okay. So the demands of our jobs don’t match up too well. What do we do about it?”

In the silence that followed, she became aware that the city was unnaturally peaceful, as though it slept beneath its blanket of white.

“I don’t know,” he said at last, with a forlorn little shrug.

“I could travel with you during the summers. That’s a start.”

“Summer is actually my quietest season. And I’d still be traveling alone nine months of the year.” He sighed and drew her closer, his arms closing around her. “I’d hate being away from you that much.”

“I don’t suppose you can cut back on your travel?”

“Not any time soon. My schedule books up two to three years in advance.”

“Then I don’t know the answer. But if we’re willing to be flexible, we’ll come up with something.”

He tipped her chin up and kissed her. “Flexible. That’s my new middle name.”

“William F. Darcy, huh?”

“At your service, ma’am.”

Their next kiss started as a teasing caress, lips brushing and nibbling, tongues darting out and retreating. But passion bloomed rapidly, leaving her gripping his shoulders, her head cradled in his hands. He tumbled her onto her back and loomed over her, his smile affectionate, his eyes dark and hungry. “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

She looped her arms around his neck. “If you’ve learned the word ‘flexible,’ that’s a pretty good indication.” She nibbled his ear lobe and whispered, “Though sometimes I like it when you’re … rigid.”

Laughing, he lowered his body into intimate contact with hers. Her senses came sizzling to life.

“Your wish is my command,” he said.