Elizabeth was walking alone on the beach, and yet somehow not alone. The sun, instead of keeping to its assigned place in the sky, seemed to tumble along behind her on the sand, its heat embracing her with seeking hands of pure solar energy. A faint ocean breeze whistled in her ear, tickling the tiny hairs on the back of her neck.

“Mmmmm.”

She opened one eye and the sensual dream dissolved into an even more stirring reality. William’s warm flesh was molded against her back, his hands skimming lazily over her torso, his breath fanning her neck. He snuggled against her with a drowsy hum of satisfaction, a duplicate of the one that had awakened her moments before.

She captured his hand and brought it to her lips. In answer, he kissed her neck, his jaw prickly against her shoulder. “Good morning,” he mumbled, his voice scratchy with sleep.

“It can’t be morning already.”

His rusty chuckle was almost comically deep. “Why? Did something keep you awake all night?”

“Someone did.” She grinned, feeling deliciously wicked. “Though I suppose you could also say it was something.”

The something in question prodded her, nudging its way insistently between her thighs. Clearly it was wider awake than its owner, though from the way his arms tightened around her and the heat of his lips against her shoulder, the gap was closing fast.

“Don’t you ever get enough?” she whispered.

He froze for a moment and then released her hastily, as though her skin burned him. “I’m sorry. If you don’t want to …”

She scooted backwards and pressed against him, decadent warmth slithering through her veins. “I didn’t say that.”

“Mmm,” he murmured, his arms closing around her. “A woman after my own heart.”

 

japanese tea gardenWilliam shivered and tried to retreat into his leather jacket, like a six-foot turtle pulling into its shell. Not even the dollops of sunlight filtering through the trees could banish the damp morning chill. But he couldn’t complain; taking a walk in Golden Gate Park had been his idea. He reached for Elizabeth’s hand and clasped it tightly, finding it cold to the touch.

His other hand dipped into his pocket for at least the tenth time in as many minutes. He fingered a small velvet box, exploring its rounded lid and the seam where it opened to reveal its contents—contents that had become an obsession.

What am I waiting for? He couldn’t be afraid of her answer any longer, not after the unprecedented intimacies they had shared last night. A few sore muscles groaned as he wandered down the path, but he had no complaints. Quite the contrary. His body and his heart were practically singing this morning.

True to his prediction, he hadn’t lasted long the first time. It had been an exhilarating ride, catapulting him into a universe of blinding colors and soaring melodies. He had floated back to earth in her arms afterwards and, after a few incoherent attempts at speech, had simply held her, his body quaking in time with the frantic thrumming of his heart. Never had he felt more intimately connected to another person. Never had he felt so deeply, so completely loved. He would remember this birthday, and the sweetest gift he had ever received, for the rest of his life.

Sooner than he could have imagined, he had been ready—and eager—to repeat the experience. This time, the razor’s edge of hunger temporarily blunted, he had gazed up in awe at his lush goddess, her hair streaming over her shoulders in glorious disarray, her cries of pleasure ringing in his ears. Then he had drawn her beneath him once more, driven by an inexhaustible craving for union of body and soul.

They had made love again in the pale pre-dawn light, her back spooned against his chest as they rocked together in a languorous cadence. Sleep had reclaimed him soon afterward, his hands still cradling the warm mounds of her breasts. By William’s reckoning, it was heaven on earth.

tea houseUnfortunately, the day required more of him than a blissful span of hours in Elizabeth’s bed. He needed to practice, to withdraw into himself to prepare for his recital. But first he had suggested a walk in the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park.

japanese tea garden

Soft voices echoed from the rustic tea house near the garden entrance, where kimono-clad waitresses served pots of steaming tea to tourists. But peace reigned along the walkways that snaked past glassy ponds and meticulously shaped bonsai shrubs. It was the perfect place to ask her, for the second time, to be his wife.

She would look beautiful tonight, his ring sparkling on her finger as she sat in a place of honor in the theater. Catherine de Bourgh would stamp her expensively-shod feet and turn a designer shade of purple, but he didn’t care. It would only add spice to an already perfect evening.

japanese tea gardenThey wandered down a curving lane flanked on one side by a row of maple trees and on the other by a hedge of bamboo. It was the most secluded walk in the garden and also the darkest, a sheltering canopy of evergreens admitting only patchy sunlight. The sounds of city traffic outside the garden seemed to recede, imbuing the leafy chapel with a reverent silence that worsened the jittering in William’s stomach.

japanese tea gardenDiscarded maple leaves lay scattered beneath the trees, with a few yellow leaves still clinging to the branches, trembling in the faint breeze. He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of dead leaves and damp earth along with the faint tang of eucalyptus. A thin ray of sunlight pooled on a stretch of the lane ahead. All right. When we reach that part of the path, I’ll ask her.

Less than a minute later, his feet touched the sun-splashed pavement. He swallowed and squared his shoulders, his fingers clutching the ring box.

japanese tea gardenElizabeth sighed. “I’m going to miss it here,” she said softly.

He blinked at her unexpected words. “Here in the garden?”

She glanced at him, her wistful smile making his heart contract. “Here in San Francisco. The garden, the bay, the coast … all of it.” She captured a maple leaf drifting past, its veins like a frail brown skeleton against withered flesh. “That area we walked past a few minutes ago, near the pond? It’s full of azaleas and cherry trees, and I was thinking that I won’t be here to see them the next time they bloom.”

“We’ll come back in the spring and visit.”

“People always say things like that. But we’ll be too busy, or you’ll be traveling, or …” She shrugged. “Besides, it’s not the same as being here.”

He released the ring box. A cold hand seemed to encircle his heart, squeezing until he could scarcely breathe. “Are you saying you don’t want to move to New York?”

She sighed, shaking her head. “No, that’s not it. I just wish …” She glanced up at him. “It’s just that San Francisco is home, and I love it here.”

japanese tea garden“But you lived in New York for five years. I thought you liked it there.”

“I did. I do. But I was away from here for such a long time, ever since high school. I finally found my way back, and I was just getting settled.”

“I see.” He lifted his chin, his tone precise and cool. “I had no idea you found cherry trees and azaleas more attractive than my company.”

She stopped walking and grasped his hands. “Stop it this instant.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop hiding behind that wall of yours. I thought we were done letting barriers come between us.”

“And I thought you wanted to be with me.”

“Oh, for goodness sake! Of course I want to be with you, you big, dumb—” She scowled at him, her eyes dark as the evergreens overhead. “I miss you like crazy when you’re not around. The past few weeks seemed like they’d never end. Don’t you know by now how much you mean to me?”

He licked his lips, slightly mollified. “Then why—”

“I just wanted to talk to someone about how I was feeling. And I’m closer to you than to anyone else, even Jane, so …” She shrugged. “I like sharing things with you.”

“I’m sorry.” William wished he could vanish completely inside his jacket, leaving an empty leather shell suspended in mid-air. “Please, go ahead.”

She eyed him for a moment in silence and then continued. “It’s like being on a roller coaster. Nothing but ups and downs. I’m leaving so much behind, and sometimes it sneaks up on me and makes me a little melancholy, like today. Other times I get nervous about everything that’s going to change in my life in the next few months. But then I think about being with you.” She offered him a rueful smile. “For some crazy reason, you matter more than all the rest of it put together. I can’t wait till we’re living in the same city.”

He relaxed his taut jaw muscles and grasped her hand. “You just wish the city could be this one.”

She nodded. “Because then I could have my sourdough bread and eat it too.”

William’s lips twitched into a half smile. He understood how she felt; in fact, part of him wished it could be San Francisco too. The city’s laid-back charm allowed him to relax in a way he found impossible in New York. “Maybe we can spend part of every year out here.”

“That would be nice. But we have so many other things to work out before we can even talk about that.”

She was right. He fingered the ring box again.

“For one thing, I need a job in New York. But first I have to figure out what kind of job to look for.”

“I was hoping you’d make traveling with me your job.”

“I’ll travel with you whenever I can. But you told me you didn’t mind if I wanted to teach. I need to support myself.”

“You could let me support you.”

He saw the tightness around her eyes and mouth. She shook her head. “William—”

“Hear me out.” He was prepared for her objections. “I know you want to be independent, but I’ve been thinking about this. Lizzy, I need you with me all the time. Eventually I’ll cut back on my travel, and then you can go back to teaching if you want. In the meantime, you could think of yourself as … I don’t know. My paid companion?”

“When a man hires a woman as a paid companion, they usually call her something else.” Elizabeth’s smile was humorless, and he heard the knife edge in her voice.

“I didn’t mean it that way, and I think you know it.”

“I do. But it could look that way to some people. Like your grandmother. Wouldn’t it confirm every suspicion she’s ever had about my motives?”

“Then we won’t tell her.”

“She won’t need to be told. She’s a smart woman, and it’ll be obvious that I don’t have a paying job. Except as your, ahem, paid companion.” Elizabeth shook her head. “No, I can’t do that.”

William glanced away, his eyes following the path of a maple leaf turning lazy cartwheels as it drifted down to join its comrades.

“Besides,” Elizabeth continued, “I want to be something more than your roadie. Or groupie. Or whatever.” She grinned and looped her arms around his neck. “Though I have to admit, it sounds like a pretty good gig.”

japanese tea gardenWilliam smiled despite his disappointment. “But not good enough. I must not be as irresistible as I thought.”

“You have your moments. Like right now, when you’re pouting.” She kissed the tip of his nose and then his lips.

Voices sounded behind them, announcing the approach of other visitors. William removed his hands from Elizabeth’s waist, and she stepped back with a rueful smile. They walked onward, pausing to admire an ornate red pagoda towering over them.

“I’m sorry if it sounded like I’m having second thoughts,” she said softly. “I’m not. It’s just that everything is so uncertain right now—where I’m going to live, what I’m going to do to support myself, how things are going to work out with your family …”

japanese tea gardenAsk her! The words screamed in his head. A ring on her finger and a wedding date on the calendar would resolve much of the uncertainty. But he couldn’t form the words. What if she told him she needed more time, that she wanted to get settled in New York first? He had survived her refusal once, just barely. But twice?

The ring box seemed to grow heavier in his pocket with every step, until his jacket sagged under its weight. He sighed. There would be another time to ask her. Perhaps at Christmas. Once they were together in New York, her worries would surely fade.

 

Elizabeth dashed across Mission Street and glanced at her watch. It had taken several minutes of determined circling to find a parking space, followed by a quick trip into a small Latino market to get change for the coin-gulping meter. Four minutes for a dime! They should dress the parking meters in ski masks and attach toy pistols.

la taqueriaShe followed a group of men in painters’ overalls into La Taqueria, a small Mexican restaurant in the Mission District. Jane waved at her from a table in the back.

“Sorry I’m late,” Elizabeth gasped, dropping onto the bench across from Jane’s. “Parking was a mess.”

“It’s no problem. I’ve only been here for a few minutes myself.”

“Have you ordered?”

“No. Let’s go get in line.”

They wound their way through the maze of scarred brown picnic tables and joined the queue alongside the counter. Elizabeth frowned, taking in Jane’s pale blue sweater, skinny jeans, and high-heeled leather boots. “I’ve never seen you in jeans on a work day. Have you instituted casual Fridays at the office?”

Jane smiled and seemed to blush. “I decided to take the day off. I’m going to stop by the office after lunch and pick up some papers.”

“I’ve been playing hooky this morning myself,” Elizabeth said. “The exams on the dining room table are probably going to rise up and tackle me the instant I get home.”

They reached the front of the line and ordered. Elizabeth insisted on paying for both their lunches. “I feel like celebrating today,” she explained as they seated themselves to wait for their order number to be called.

“You look happy,” Jane said with a warm smile. “I take it the rest of William’s birthday celebration was a success?”la taqueria

“He said it was the first real birthday party he’d ever had. It made me want to cry.”

“You’re so good for him, Lizzy. We were talking about it this morning. Charles said he’d never seen William so comfortable in his skin, if you know what I mean.”

Elizabeth was about to answer when Jane reached up to brush a stray hair out of her eyes. Something sparkled, riveting Elizabeth’s attention. “What’s that on your hand?”

With an almost shy smile, Jane extended her left hand, displaying a diamond ring, the one she had returned to Charles last May. “I was wondering how soon you’d notice. It was everything I could do not to flash it at you.”

“Oh, my gosh!” Elizabeth squealed, attracting the curious stares of nearby patrons. She jumped to her feet and ran around the table, enveloping Jane in a hug. “Oh, Jane! I’m so happy for you!”

Delight shone in Jane’s eyes. She was always beautiful, but today she seemed to radiate an almost other-worldly glow. “I couldn’t wait to tell you. Charles laughed at me, because the moment I put on the ring I said, ‘Oh, I have to tell Lizzy!’”

“If I’d known, I would have suggested someplace fancier for lunch.”

“The place doesn’t matter.” Jane sighed, her smile lighting their corner of the room. “Lizzy, I’m so happy.”

“When did he ask you?”

“This morning. We went for an early run, and afterwards while I was in the shower he went out and got breakfast for us, and a single rose. He tied the ring to its stem.”

Elizabeth clasped Jane’s hand. “I had no idea he was so romantic.”

“He can be. He said he’d understand if I wanted more time, but he had to tell me how he felt and what he wanted. And what he wanted was to spend his life with me.”

“Oh, wow.” Tears pricked at Elizabeth’s eyes. “That’s beautiful. Have you talked about a wedding date?”

“We want to have a small wedding some time in January, with just our family and a few close friends. But we thought we’d check your schedule and William’s before we set a date. You have to be our maid of honor and best man again.”

“We’d love to. But aren’t you afraid it might be bad luck?”

“Of course not. There’s nobody else we’d want standing beside us.”

“Well, you know I’ll be there, no matter what date you choose.”

Jane’s smile faded into a pensive expression. “Has William said anything to you? About getting married, I mean.”

“Not since that remark he made at Thanksgiving.”

“That’s odd. Charles said he came back from the kitchen with a beer yesterday and saw William holding a jeweler’s box, staring into it. Charles was pretty sure he saw a diamond ring in the box. As soon as William saw Charles, he snapped the box shut and dropped it into his pocket. Charles assumed William was planning to propose to you last night. In fact, he said that was what gave him the courage to ask me.”

William hadn’t even hinted at marriage, and their discussion about her move to New York had offered him a perfect opportunity. “After everything that happened over Thanksgiving, maybe he thinks we’d better wait a while. I mean, his grandmother barely tolerates me, and Georgie wishes I’d go away and leave her big brother alone.”

“Somehow I don’t think he’s going to let his family get in the way, not after he followed you to Barbados to win you back.” Jane smiled. “Anyway, Charles said he dropped a bunch of hints to see if he could get William to confide in him, but no such luck.”

“Oh, like that was going to work.”

“That’s what Charles said, but he tried anyway.”

“Hmm.” Elizabeth leaned forward, her elbow on the table, and propped her chin on one hand. “So if William thinks it’s too soon to get engaged, what’s he doing with a ring in his pocket?”

“That’s the question.” Jane ran her finger absently over the surface of her diamond.

Elizabeth thought for a minute, and then raised her eyebrows. “Come to think of it, there’s a simple explanation. William went to his aunt and uncle’s penthouse yesterday to pick up some things. He hadn’t been there since he flew to LA last month, not long after I returned the ring to him. And, remember, he went directly from LA to Australia. He wouldn’t have taken the ring along, especially not after what happened between us. I bet it’s been at the penthouse all this time, and he finally picked it up to take it back to New York.”

“That sounds reasonable. Maybe you’ll get it for Christmas.”

“That would be nice.” Better than nice. The past few weeks without him had removed the last of her doubts. They belonged together, permanently. This realization had prompted her fit of melancholy this morning. Her time in San Francisco was running short, and she was unlikely ever to live there again.

Jane stretched out her left hand and admired her ring. “It’s even more beautiful than I remembered.”

Elizabeth glanced at the receipt on the table in front of her, and realized that their number had been called several times in an increasingly impatient tone. “Oops! Our tacos are ready.”

She jumped to her feet. Jane rose as well, but Elizabeth stopped her. “No, you stay put. It’s the maid of honor’s job to serve the bride-to-be.”

Elizabeth felt like dancing across to the counter, and had the room not been so crowded she might have done it. As it was, she nearly spilled their mango aguas frescas while making her energetic way back to their table.

The only thing that could improve the moment would be to share Jane’s good news with William. But he was sequestered in his studio preparing for the recital, and had made a point of telling her his cell phone would be turned off. The news would have to wait until later that night.

 

“Those must be ours,” Eleanor Fitzwilliam said, indicating three seats on the aisle in the fifth row.

herbst theaterElizabeth slipped off her coat and settled into her seat. “Wow. This is perfect.” They were just far enough back to eliminate the need to crane their necks looking up at the stage. In addition, they were on the correct side of the house to have an unobstructed view of William’s hands. “I’ll have to write Mrs. Darcy a thank-you note.”

Rose Darcy had chosen to stay in New York, and Elizabeth was occupying her seat. As Eleanor had explained over dinner, Catherine de Bourgh’s recent persecution of Elizabeth had infuriated Rose, leading her to cancel her trip at the last minute in a pointed show of disapproval. Elizabeth was surprised and flattered by Rose’s advocacy. Robert had explained, “As far as she’s concerned, you’re under the family’s protection. If Catherine attacks you, she’s really attacking us.”

Dinner at a French café near Union Square had been a pleasure until, just as a heavenly dessert of soft chocolate cake drenched with crème anglaise arrived, Eleanor’s phone had played the melody of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.1” Eleanor had stepped into the restaurant’s foyer to take the call, and had returned looking grave. Although she had tried to resume their light-hearted conversation, her frequent worried glances at her husband had told another story.

Elizabeth had left the table soon after, using a trip to the ladies’ room as a pretext to give them privacy. On her return, she had asked if everything was all right. She didn’t want to pry, but it seemed insensitive to all the signs of trouble. Eleanor had flashed a false smile, saying only, “Don’t worry about it, dear.”

The hum of voices grew louder as the theater filled. Elizabeth turned and craned her neck to look up at the balcony. Her original seat, the one she had obtained through the conservatory, had been in one of the last rows. Herbst Theater was the Civic Center’s smallest auditorium, but it still seated almost a thousand people. Catherine de Bourgh would undoubtedly seethe with resentment when she saw Elizabeth occupying one of the best seats in the house instead of her designated place in nosebleed territory. Good. Serves her right.

As though summoned by Elizabeth’s thoughts, Catherine strutted down the aisle with a large group in formal attire. Catherine’s eyes fell on Elizabeth, her glare cold enough to freeze the sun, and her lips compressed to a narrow slash of crimson. Then she yanked her gaze away and directed her companions into the fourth row, directly in front of Elizabeth and the Fitzwilliams. Anne, who brought up the rear of the parade, flashed a faint smile at Elizabeth as she took her seat.

The house lights dimmed, and the crowd grew silent in anticipation. Then William strode onstage, greeted by enthusiastic applause.

He was born to wear a tailcoat. It emphasized his broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and used his height to advantage, the coattails billowing slightly behind his long-legged frame as he moved.

As he bowed to the audience, his eyes fell on her and widened in a private greeting. He seated himself at the piano, flipping his coattails behind him in an unspeakably sexy gesture.

Then he began to play, opening, as he usually did in recitals, with Chopin’s Grande Valse Brilliante2. Every note seemed to tingle down her spine. She pressed her hand to her chest, trying to still her heart’s frenzied thumping. Could this godlike figure be the same man who had shuddered in her arms the night before, who had held her hand in the garden that morning? It seemed impossible.

Elizabeth spent the first half of the recital in a state of ever-increasing bliss. Each time William stood to acknowledge the audience, their eyes locked and held, the joy of the moment streaming between them. She felt as though she were beside him, their hands joined, their eyes sweeping the auditorium in tandem. She was no stranger to the thrill of standing on a stage receiving applause, and she knew that his exultation was all the greater because he could share it with her.

His final selection before intermission was Beethoven’s “Appasionata” piano sonata. Its final movement, culminating in a frantic waterfall of notes spilling across the piano3, left her breathless and brought the audience to its feet, cheering. William’s eyes met hers one final time, and then he left the stage. As the house lights came up, she sat back, exhaling slowly. “Wow.”

“Isn’t he wonderful?” Eleanor beamed with obvious pride. “Have you ever seen him on stage before?”

“Of course she has,” Robert replied. “She was at the Juilliard benefit in June.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Eleanor winked at Elizabeth. “How could I forget my son and my nephew doing battle for your attention?”

Elizabeth giggled, glad that the music had dispelled Eleanor’s earlier anxiety. “I didn’t catch all the undercurrents at the time, but William told me more about it later. Evidently there was even some subtle name-calling involved.”

Their conversation was interrupted by people further down the row who wanted to reach the aisle. Elizabeth, Eleanor, and Robert stood up to let them pass and then stayed on their feet, agreeing that it felt good to stretch. Elizabeth glanced down at herself, fighting the urge to tug up the neckline of her strapless dress, the same one she had worn so briefly at her birthday celebration in October. Nothing indecent was showing, but she still wasn’t accustomed to clothing that defied gravity.

“In Richard’s defense,” Eleanor said, “he didn’t know how William felt about you until later.”

“William told me that. But, really, Richard was just flirting with me. And I’ve learned since then that flirting is one of his favorite sports.”

Robert chuckled. “You’ve got his number, no doubt about it.”

“He takes after his father,” Eleanor remarked, shooting a wry glance at her husband. “But since we’re talking about this …” She hesitated. “Elizabeth, I wouldn’t ask you to reveal any confidences, of course. But is there someone he’s interested in? He’s been different lately. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but he’s not himself. I was talking to Sonya about it recently, and she mentioned someone he met when he was out here in October.”

“He spent some time with my friend, Charlotte Lucas.” Elizabeth wasn’t sure how much more she should say about Charlotte and Richard. “He seemed to take a special interest in her.”

“That’s the name Sonya mentioned. Hmm. She isn’t here tonight, is she?”

“Charlotte?” Elizabeth smiled. “No. She’s out of town. Besides, she’s not a big fan of classical music.”

In the row ahead of them, Catherine de Bourgh was making her way toward the aisle with a brisk sense of purpose. Her eyes happened to meet Elizabeth’s, but she withdrew her gaze immediately, jutting her chin out at a haughty angle. Engrossed in her display of imperial disdain, Catherine must have neglected to pay attention to her footing. She stumbled over something on the floor in front of her—perhaps a purse, perhaps someone’s foot—and nearly pitched head-first into the lap of one of her guests. Elizabeth belatedly recognized the rotund, goateed man as a celebrated operatic baritone, in town to appear with the San Francisco Opera. Catherine, her complexion three shades brighter than usual, righted herself, sputtered an apology, and stalked up the aisle as fast as her short legs would carry her.

“Don’t you love going to the theater?” Eleanor murmured. “You never know what sort of entertainment you’ll see.”

Anne moved along the row at a more relaxed pace and stepped gracefully into the aisle. “Good evening,” she said, her pale blue eyes sweeping from Robert to Eleanor and then to Elizabeth. All three returned her greeting.

“How are you this evening, dear?” Eleanor asked, with a warm smile. Elizabeth was amused. Apparently all the Darcy women harbored maternal feelings toward Anne.

“I’m very well,” Anne said with a faint smile. “Hasn’t the recital been wonderful so far? But, of course, William’s concerts always are.” She glanced at Elizabeth. “You must be so proud of him.”

“I think we all are,” Elizabeth said, smiling at the Fitzwilliams.

“Could I talk to you for a minute, Elizabeth?” Anne asked.

“Sure.” Elizabeth was surprised, but rose to her feet quickly. “I’ll be back,” she said to Eleanor and Robert.

Anne led Elizabeth through a haze of expensive perfume to a remote corner of the crowded lobby. “I hope you don’t mind my bringing you out here.”

“Of course not. What’s going on? ”

“I need your advice.”

“About what?” Elizabeth dabbed at her forehead, wishing she had her program to use as a fan. The temperature was at least ten degrees warmer here than inside the theater.

“Roger asked me to a New Years Eve party. I guess his band is performing?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s a big deal.” Golden Gate Jazz had gotten an unprecedented booking, as the primary entertainment at the Clift Hotel on New Year’s Eve. “I’m sorry I’m going to miss it, but I’ll be in Washington. They had to hire another singer to take my place.”

“That’s what Roger said.”

“But Jane and Charles will be there.” Charles had rejoined Golden Gate Jazz and had thrown himself into raising the group’s profile, with the Clift Hotel job the direct result. “I’m so glad Roger asked you!”

“Me too, but …” Anne paused and licked her lips. “I have no idea what to wear. Can you help me? Please? I know the Clift is a trendy place.” She sighed and glanced down at her dress. “I don’t want to look dowdy, like I do tonight. Like I always do.”

“Oh, no, don’t say that.” Elizabeth called on her acting ability to make the protest sound genuine. Anne’s light taupe satin dress hung to mid-calf. Unfortunately, it made her already colorless skin look waxy, and its billowing layers overwhelmed her tiny frame.

“It’s okay. I know I look terrible most of the time. I don’t have any idea how to dress. You always look so pretty, so I thought maybe you could help me.”

Elizabeth burst out laughing, but stopped abruptly when she saw Anne’s wounded expression. She grasped Anne’s arm. “Oh, no, I’m not laughing at you, just at what you said about me. If you had any idea how hopeless I used to be with clothes!”

“Really?” Anne’s eyes widened.

“Six months ago, my wardrobe would have sent you screaming off into the night. Everything was baggy and shapeless.”

“What happened?”

“Jane got her hands on me and dragged me into the twenty-first century. Also, I just started caring more about the way I looked.”

“Because of William?”

Elizabeth nodded. “At first he was the only reason.”

“It’s obvious he likes the way you look. At Thanksgiving, he almost never took his eyes off you.”

Elizabeth pressed her lips together, curbing her smile. “Later I found out that it makes me feel more confident when I put some effort into my appearance, so now I do it to please myself.” She grinned. “As well as for him.”

“You always look wonderful. And you seem so happy and … so comfortable with yourself.”

“Thank you.” It was impressive evidence of how far Elizabeth had come in leaving her past behind. “I think the biggest change was that I stopped trying to hide my body. I don’t flaunt it, but I also don’t bury it under oversized clothes like I used to.”

Anne glanced down at her dress again. “I know I could never look as good as you do, but—”

“Of course you could!”

Anne shook her head, glancing down at herself. “No. I’m not even flat-chested. I’m concave. And I don’t have hips. And I’m so short. You have curves and long legs, and that’s what men like.”

“But you’re so delicate looking, like a porcelain doll. I’ve always wanted to look like that.”

Anne toyed with her pearl necklace. “You’re just saying that to be nice.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I feel like a hippopotamus next to you. Plus, you’re a blue-eyed blonde, like every fairy tale princess I’ve ever read about. You have no idea how much I wanted blonde hair and blue eyes when I was a little girl. I actually tried to dye my hair once when I was about nine.”

“What happened?”

“It ended up this weird shade of orange.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Mom had to take me to a salon to have it fixed. She made me pay for it out of my allowance. If my grandmother hadn’t slipped me some money now and then, I would have been penniless for months.”

“Isn’t it strange, how we all want to be something we’re not? Because I’d give anything to look like you.”

“I think you just need to learn a few tricks to make the most of what you have.”

Anne sighed, clearly unconvinced.

The lights in the lobby dipped and a chime sounded, signaling the end of intermission. Anne and Elizabeth joined the throng streaming toward the theater doors.

Elizabeth sighed in relief when she felt the cool air in the theater. No doubt her eyeliner was halfway to her chin by now. “You know what we need to do? Go shopping with Jane. She’s great at picking clothes. She’s good with hair and make-up too.”

“And you think she’d really be willing to do that?”

“Are you kidding? She’d love it. The only thing is, I have to warn you about a game we play called Fashion Mistake.”

“What’s that?”

“We force one another to try on hideous clothes. You might want to think twice about going shopping with us, because you never know what we might pick for you to try.”

“But I’d get to pick things for you too, wouldn’t I?”

Elizabeth grinned. “Now you’re catching on.”

“Then I’ll take my chances.” Anne’s smile brightened her pale features. “Thank you so much, Elizabeth.”

“No need to thank me. We’ll have a great time. I’ll call you to coordinate schedules.”

Herbst theaterAs Elizabeth slipped into her seat, she saw Catherine glaring at her. When Anne sat down, Catherine grabbed her arm and began whispering furiously, with occasional backward glances.

William strode back on stage to tumultuous applause. Again he sent Elizabeth a warm look, which she answered with a wide smile. He stood in place, waiting for the applause to die, and then his resonant voice filled the hall. “As some of you know, my family’s foundation, the Darcy Arts Trust, supports music education efforts. Recently we awarded grants to several young composers to support their continued studies. One of our grant winners, Jennifer Nguyen, composes for the piano in a classical/jazz fusion style. I’m pleased to perform two of her compositions for you now.”4, 5

Elizabeth had heard him practicing Nguyen’s music at Pemberley and in New York, and had seen the enjoyment it gave him. The eclectic blend of his two favorite styles of music made the pieces perfect choices, both artistically and intellectually. He played the selections with obvious delight, his hands flying over the keys, a look of blissful concentration on his face.

At the end of the second piece, he called the composer onstage from the wings. She dipped her head in a shy bow, clearly unaccustomed to the spotlight. William joined in the applause, and Elizabeth was struck by his relaxed, good-natured demeanor. This is what music does for him. And yet at the recital six months before in New York, he had seemed distant and awkward when addressing the crowd. Maybe this is what I’ve done for him.

She was still digesting this thought when, after locking eyes with her, he returned to the piano and began to play the Brahms Intermezzo6 he had privately named “Lizzy’s song.” She was plunged into the past, recalling other times he had played it. She saw herself, fearful of her attraction to him, sitting beside him on the piano bench in his New York study. She saw herself hurrying down the path at Rosings, tears streaming down her cheeks as she tried to escape the bittersweet melody lacerating her heart. She saw herself watching him play over his shoulder during their autumn together in San Francisco: a happy time, yet marred by her inability to move beyond her past. And here I am today, happy and looking to the future.

Tears welled up in her eyes, tears she couldn’t have held back for any inducement. With a wobbly smile she reached for her purse; she had known the recital would move her to tears at least once and had come well stocked with tissues. The glorious notes seemed to shimmer around her, glistening like the teardrops that rolled down her cheeks, one after another.

At the end of the piece, William rose from the piano bench and acknowledged the enthusiastic applause. Eleanor touched Elizabeth’s arm. “Are you okay?” she murmured.

Elizabeth dabbed her eyes and sniffled. “He played that last piece for me.”

“I think he’s playing all of them for you, dear.”

At that moment William’s eyes met hers and his smile widened. It was the happiest moment of her life.

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1 Scott McKenzie’s recording of “San Francisco,” a song written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas to promote the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, became an unofficial anthem for the hippie movement. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

2Grande Valse Brilliante, Op. 18, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy on Essential Chopin, © 1995, Decca Records. Listen to a sample on iTunes. (Repeated from Chapter 12)

3 Piano Sonata No. 23, Op. 57, in F minor (“Appasionata”), by Ludwig van Beethoven, third movement. Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy on Favorite Beethoven Piano Sonatas, © 199,7 London Records. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

4 Toccatina, Op. 36, by Nikolai Kapustin. Performed by Marc-André Hamelin on Kaleidoscope, © 2001, Hyperion. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

5 Sonatina, Op. 100, by Nikolai Kapustin. Performed by Marc-André Hamelin on Nikolai asputin: Piano Music Vol. 2, © 2004, Hyperion. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

6 Intermezzo in A, Opus 118, No. 2, by Johannes Brahms. Performed by Daniel Pollack on First Kiss, © 1996, Four Winds Entertainment. Listen to a sample on iTunes. My favorite version was recorded by Van Cliburn, but it’s not available on iTunes and Pollack’s interpretation is similar. Repeated from Chapters 15 and 23.