Elizabeth flipped onto her side and blew an aggressive stream of air out her nose. She hadn’t slept at all, too busy punching her pillow into shape, pulling the blanket up to her neck, and then flinging it away to pool at her feet. Every sound—a car chugging up the steep rise of Buena Vista Avenue, a dog barking somewhere nearby, even the sound of her own breathing—seemed to spin up to the ceiling and hover there, taunting her. She even imagined that she could hear a soft click once a minute, when the electronic display changed on her alarm clock. I have officially lost my mind.

She yanked the covers up again. A blast of cold air washed over her toes as the bottom edge of the sheet came loose. Exhaling an indignant sigh, she flounced out of bed to make repairs. A cold draft washed over her, courtesy of the loose seal around her bedroom window.

Something creaked in the hall and she froze, listening for another sound. It came soon enough: a soft knock and a hesitant voice. “Lizzy?”

She dove under the covers, evaluating her options. The door creaked open and William’s silhouette filled the doorway, made barely visible by the night light in the bathroom down the hall. “Lizzy, may I come in?”

For the moment she didn’t answer, choosing to feign sleep. William, treating her silence as assent, padded across the room. “I know you’re awake,” he said softly.

“How could you tell?”

The bed dipped as he perched on the edge of the mattress. The sleeve of his tuxedo shirt glowed red in the faint light of her alarm clock’s digital display. “Other than the fact that you just answered me?”

She coughed in lieu of a response.

“I know what your breathing sounds like when you’re asleep.” He lifted a lock of her hair from the pillow and curled it around his finger. “I’ve held you in my arms at night, memorizing the sound.”

Tears pricked her eyes, but she blinked them back ruthlessly. She refused to succumb to his gentle charm. She would hold out for an apology. And not just any apology, either. It had to be heartfelt and sincere; nothing less would do.

“Lizzy, I’m sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”

All right, then. She would hold out for an apology and an unqualified admission of guilt. “You were horrid.”

“I know. I should never have said those things. I wouldn’t blame you if you never forgave me.” He had left the bedroom door open, and the faint light trickling in from the hallway allowed her to read the remorse in his eyes. His fingers—the same long, slender fingers that had produced heart-stirring music just a few hours before—brushed her cheek.

“Then why did you say them?”

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I was exhausted and mad at the world.”

“Including me?”

“I think I was angry mostly at myself. If I’d listened to you about Georgie, none of this would have happened.”

“You don’t know that. If a teenage girl is looking for trouble, nothing is going to stop her from finding it.”

“But why would she be looking for trouble? And why would she steal?” His head drooped and he rubbed his forehead. “She knows it’s wrong, and she has money to buy things. Why would she do this?” His voice faltered.

Sympathy welled up in Elizabeth’s heart, elbowing her anger and hurt aside. “You must be cold.” She pulled the covers back. “Let’s get comfortable, and then we’ll talk.”

“Does that mean I’m forgiven?”

It didn’t, not yet, but she was helpless against his plaintive expression, like a basset hound without the wrinkles. “Not completely, but it’s a start. You’re lucky I love you so much.”

“I know.” He pulled off his shirt, leaving him clad in nothing but his boxers, and then hesitated. “I left my pillow in the living room.”

“Then you’d better go get it. I’ll share the bed with you, but I’m not ready for joint custody of my pillow just yet.”

A rueful smile touched his lips, and he rose from the bed. He returned a minute later, his pillow tucked under one arm, and she rolled sideways to allow him to slide into bed beside her. He turned to face her and his body brushed against hers, a glancing blow from a human iceberg.

“Were you cold out in the living room?” she asked, rolling her eyes at the idiocy of her question.

“I managed to spill the rest of your water on the blanket. Don’t worry, I cleaned it up.” He stretched, groaning softly. “But I was twisted up like a pretzel, trying to fit under the corner of the blanket that was still usable.”

Her lips twitched. “You deserved it.” But she shifted toward him and rubbed her warm feet against his icy ones.

He brushed a curl away from her face and caressed her cheek. “Lizzy, I’m sorry. I would never have made it through the evening without you. The last thing I should have done was to take out my frustrations on you.”

“Was that it? I was just a convenient target?”

“No. I think somewhere in my malfunctioning brain I knew you were the one person who’d forgive me if I behaved like an ass.”

“You weren’t afraid I’d tell you to get lost?”

He shook his head. “You made me a promise at Pemberley. We agreed that if we had problems, we’d try to fix them, not just give up and walk away.”

“So you thought, ‘Oh, what the heck. She promised not to leave, so I might as well attack her for a while’?” Elizabeth shot a freezing glare at him. “Gee, thanks.”

“Of course not. You make it sound like I purposely set out to make you angry. I wasn’t thinking. I was just …” He shrugged and shook his head.

“Overwhelmed.” She had already figured this out.

He sighed. “Yes. And blaming myself for not taking your advice. But that’s no excuse, and I know it.”

“Good.” She allowed her expression to soften. “But you need to remember that I’m on your side. Always.”

“I know, and I’m forever grateful. I certainly wouldn’t want you as an adversary.”

He gave her a long, appraising look, his lips curving into a smile so tentative that it seemed the slightest draft might blow it away. He must have found what he sought in her eyes, because he lowered his head and brushed his lips against hers. Had he asked permission she would have refused, not yet ready to capitulate, but she couldn’t find the will to push him away. The kiss was exquisite: gentle and warm, an offer of his heart that demanded nothing in return. Without a doubt, the man knew how to kiss.

Her mouth began to tingle, and she heard herself make a small noise somewhere between a sigh and a whimper. No. It’s too soon for this. She pulled away, earning a perplexed from him. “Speaking of promises,” she said, “what about the one you made me? No more walls, no more hiding things?”

“You think I’m hiding something?” He propped his head up on one arm.

“You refused to tell me what your grandmother said on the phone.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t refuse to tell you. I just wasn’t ready to talk yet. Besides, don’t I get any credit for insisting that you stay to hear Aunt Eleanor’s news, when I didn’t even know what it was about?” He pulled the blanket up over his bare shoulders.

“Yes, you do. But then we got home and you shut me out again. You wouldn’t even sit next to me on the sofa.”

He sighed. “When something happens, I need time to think things through before I can talk to anyone, even you.” He clasped her hand, stopping her from restlessly plucking at a loose fiber on the blanket. “I know you don’t understand, cara. It’s different for you; you’re so much more articulate than I am.”

“No, actually, I think I get it.” She couldn’t believe she had never made the connection before. “Dad is like that. If something bad happens he’ll go off to his den and sit and … well, just sit. Or he’ll go for a drive alone.”

“I like to go running. And there’s the piano, of course.”

“It drives Mom crazy, because she wants to start fixing the problem right away. So she fires questions at him and talks nonstop, and it just annoys him.” She grimaced. “Yikes. Something I have in common with my mother.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t respond.

She inched closer to him and rested her hand on his chest, over his heart. “I’m sorry. I never stopped to think that I might be pushing you deeper into your shell. And finally I pushed hard enough that you kind of snapped.”

“I know you were just concerned about me.”

“You were so upset, and I wanted so badly to do something to help.” She paused. “I take it everybody at the townhouse knows to leave you alone when you get quiet like that?”

“I guess so,” he murmured. “I never really thought about it, but they do. Even Gran.”

“And now I know, too. But from now on, if you need to retreat into your bubble for a little while and I’m trying to pop the bubble, just tell me, okay? Don’t come out swinging.”

“I promise, and I apologize again for behaving like a complete ass.” He kissed her softly. “And once we’re together more of the time, I think my bubble will get bigger, so there’s room for two.”

“I would love that,” she whispered. “As for tonight, I guess I should have just taken you to bed and held you in my arms. Or would you have let me do that?”

“When we first got here, I might have resisted.” As he continued, the tenderness in his expression made her eyes sting with tears. “But that’s what I want now, more than anything.”

Elizabeth reached for him and drew him toward her, sighing softly as his arms snaked around her. She buried her face in his neck and inhaled the comforting scent of Eau de William. After a time she raised her head and gave him a tremulous smile. “How’s this?”

“Perfect,” he whispered, dipping his head to hers.

They kissed slowly, deeply, the air around them laced with contentment. Then he rolled onto his back, taking her with him. They settled into a position that already felt familiar, with Elizabeth’s head cradled on his chest.

“Have you slept at all?” he asked.

“No. I was too mad at you.”

“I was hoping it was because you missed me.”

“That too,” she grumbled. “I can’t seem to sleep without you, even when I’d like to smack you into next week.”

“You have quite a bloodthirsty streak. All this talk about smacking me around, and earlier you threatened the ‘family jewels.’”

She reached down and squeezed him gently through his boxers. “Yeah, and don’t you forget it, mister.”

He grabbed her hand in feigned, or perhaps genuine, alarm. With a soft laugh, she covered his chest and neck with kisses. He emitted a little growl and rolled her partway beneath him, kissing her with gusto.

When he raised his head, she reached up and smoothed his hair. “I hate to get serious again, but a couple of things came out during our fight—”

“Let’s call it an argument.” He leaned back against his pillow, arms folded behind his head.

“I think it qualifies as a fight if one person threatens to neuter the other.” She turned onto her side to face him. “I know I kind of backed you into a corner with my questions, but that didn’t entitle you to say such nasty things.”

“Please forget what I said. I didn’t mean any of it.”

“You meant the part about Lydia. You may not have meant to say it, but you’ve made your attitude clear on several occasions.”

He opened his mouth and took a breath, but then he paused, meeting her frank gaze. “I guess that’s true.”

“Will, you don’t have to love her, or even like her. I have no illusions about Lydia; she’s got questionable morals and a foul mouth, and she isn’t too bright unless you count street smarts.”

Again he opened his mouth as though to speak, but he shut it again and waited for her to continue. Smart boy.

“I can say those things, because she’s family. If anybody else says them—well, as the saying goes, them’s fightin’ words. Isn’t it the same for you?”

He nodded and broke eye contact, glancing down at his hands. “I understand.”

“I hope so.” The flutter in her stomach graduated to a full-fledged knot. “Because when you look down your nose at my family, it feels like you’re looking down your nose at me.”

“But I’m not.” He grasped her shoulders and tried to pull her closer, but she resisted. “You couldn’t be more wrong. I was so proud of you at the reception. You were warm and beautiful and charming, and I would never have made it through without you.”

However sincere, his speech couldn’t soothe away the sting of his earlier words. “I’m just telling you how it feels.”

He reached for her again, and this time she allowed herself to be gathered into his arms. “I’m sorry, cara. I never meant to make you feel like you had to apologize for your family.”

“Maybe not, but you’d have understood if you’d ever bothered to put yourself in my shoes.”

He sighed. “I need you to teach me to do that more often. Sometimes I wonder why you put up with me.”

She considered responding with a joke, but decided that he needed a dose of reassurance. “Because when you’re not being all self-absorbed and arrogant, you’re gentle and romantic and sweet.” She pressed her lips to his cheek. “Not to mention a bunch of other wonderful things. You just need to get past the idea that the universe revolves around the Darcys in general, and William Darcy in particular.”

His expression hardened. “God knows I have no basis for thinking we’re superior to anyone else.”

Elizabeth cast about for an appropriate response, but could think of none. A siren wailed in the distance and then faded, leaving behind only the sound of their heartbeats. She molded herself against him and kissed his jaw. Her eyelids drifted shut as she surrendered to fatigue.

“Georgie is probably going to be charged with a felony.”

“What?” Elizabeth’s eyes flew open.

“That’s what Gran told me when I called.” His voice was low and strained. “Because of the dollar amount involved, it could be a felony charge. Lizzy, this could ruin her life.”

“But I bet your lawyer can negotiate and get the charge reduced. And shouldn’t it make a difference that she’s a minor?”

“I don’t know.” He released her and rolled onto his back, his eyes locked on the ceiling. “Gran said there were no guarantees.”

She struggled into a sitting position. “Let’s call Jane, like I suggested earlier. She’s helped plenty of kids in trouble.” She reached for the phone.

“Lizzy, it’s the middle of the night.”

“She’ll be happy to help, and you’ll sleep better if you have some answers. The only thing is, we’ll have to tell her about Georgie. Is that okay?”

William shut his eyes, and when he opened them she could see even in the dim light that they were damp. “What if they sentence her to prison, Lizzy? I guess it would be Juvenile Hall. What if …” His voice stuck in his throat, and he closed his eyes again, shaking his head.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around him. “Really, everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”

He clung to her tightly, as though he feared he might drown if he let go. She cradled his head against her chest and stroked his hair, shaken by the fierce protective instinct surging through her veins.

At last he raised his head. “This is my fault,” he said softly.

“Your fault? Why?”

“First, because I was so damned arrogant. I refused to even consider the possibility that a Darcy, especially my sister, would ever get into trouble.”

He wasn’t entirely wrong, but he needed comfort, not brutal honesty. “You’re being way too hard on yourself,” she said firmly. “We’re all short-sighted about the people we love the most.”

William didn’t answer at first. When he did, his voice was low and halting. “Georgie thinks I don’t love her.”

“But that’s crazy. Anyone can see how much you care about her.”

“She told Gran that we don’t love her and don’t want her around. And what else would she think? I’m never there, and when I am I’m usually getting ready to leave again.”

He lowered his head to its resting place on her shoulder with an unsteady sigh. She caressed his hair, whispering nonsensical words of comfort as though he were a child. She should have guessed that he was drowning in guilt, that bitter self-recrimination lurked beneath his outburst. She wondered briefly if he had lashed out in a perverse attempt to bring down her wrath. It was a novel way to provoke the punishment he felt he deserved.

She sniffed. Enough armchair psychiatry—or is that pillow psychiatry? I can’t even figure myself out half the time, much less anyone else.

He raised his head. “Thank you, cara, ” he murmured, his voice husky. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’m so sorry for everything.”

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “We’ll both do better from now on.”

They lay together quietly for a while longer, and then she shifted upright, plumping the pillow behind her. “Now, about what Georgie said, about you and Mrs. Darcy not loving her. Teenagers just say things like that sometimes. I can remember telling my parents I hated them when I was about thirteen, because they told me they couldn’t afford to send me to Interlochen.”

“But you went to Interlochen, so they must have changed their minds.”

“I got a partial scholarship, and my grandparents paid for the rest. But that wasn’t my point. I didn’t hate them. I was just frustrated and upset. Think how humiliated and frightened Georgie must have felt by the time she got home. Maybe your grandmother started to lecture her, and Georgie lashed out because she couldn’t handle hearing it.”

“Just like I did to you.”

She couldn’t suppress a wry smile. “Except she has at least a partial excuse. She’s fifteen.” She drew his face to hers for a conciliatory kiss. “My point is, of course you need to talk to her about it, because it might be a sign of trouble, but don’t automatically assume that she means it.”

“All right.”

“Do you want me to call Jane?”

“Not now. Maybe I’ll call her tomorrow evening, after I’ve talked to Georgie’s lawyer.”

They shifted into a reclining position and nestled together again. After a long, drowsy silence, she murmured, “Do you ever feel like a ping pong ball?”

“Excuse me?” He opened one eye.

“I mean the way you have to bounce back and forth between coasts. Or maybe it’s more like a bizarre tug of war, with me at one end and Georgie and your grandmother at the other. The problem is, we all love you so much that it’s hard to share.”

“Then the real problem is that I’m irresistible to women.” He said the words with a deadpan expression, but mischief glittered in his eyes.

Laughing, she flung her arms around his neck and pulled him down so that his body covered hers. “I can’t believe I forgot the rule about not feeding the ego.”

Chuckling, he kissed her, but the kiss was interrupted by his yawn.

“Am I boring you?” she asked, pursing her lips.

He yawned again. “It’s been a long day. And I didn’t get any sleep out in the living room.”

“Guilty conscience?”

“Feet sticking off the end of the sofa.”

She poked him in the side as hard as she could.

He fended her off, chuckling. “Okay, okay! Guilty conscience! Just don’t hurt me.”

She ran her hands up his arms, savoring the warm skin and solid muscles beneath her fingers. “Why did you wait so long to come in here and talk to me?”

“I was afraid you’d do me bodily harm. With good reason, as you’ve demonstrated.” One side of his mouth turned up in a crooked grin. “Seriously, it didn’t take long to realize what an ass I’d been. But I had to get up the courage to face you.”

“I bet it had more to do with your pride than your courage.”

“No comment.” He grinned. “Either way, what a waste of time, when I could have been in here with you.”

“Well,” she murmured, “you’re here now.” She ran her hands over his chest, tracing a meandering path through the dark hairs sprinkled across its surface. Would she ever tire of the steady drumming of his heart beneath her palm, of the salty tang of his skin? Probably not, especially if the universe kept conspiring to separate them.

She kissed a path up to his neck. “I’m going to miss you so much.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” he murmured, passion thickening his voice. He took her head in his hands and captured her mouth in a ravenous kiss.

All the emotion of the night—Georgie’s predicament, their argument, and their imminent separation—swirled around them, heated and volatile and darkly exciting.

“Don’t you think we should get some sleep?” she gasped. Her hands ignored her own words, shoving his boxers down over his hips.

“We can sleep any time,” he rasped, tearing open the buttons on her nightshirt. “But there are other things we can only do when we’re together.”

“Such as?” She pulled her arms out of the nightshirt and flung it to the floor.

His arms closed around her. “I believe in showing, not telling.”

And he gave her a vivid demonstration.

 

Afterwards, they lay nestled together for what little remained of the night. Elizabeth traced lazy designs across William’s chest, savoring its solid warmth beneath her hands. He told her more about Georgiana and about his resolution, at the age of fifteen, to do the impossible: to replace both the mother his sister had lost and the father who was little more than a figurehead.

“Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Robert offered to raise Georgie, but Gran wanted her to stay at the townhouse. I think Gran was afraid they’d go back to San Francisco and take her with them. And of course, as long as Father was alive, he would have objected to that as well.”

“But your father was barely around.”

“Officially, he lived at the townhouse, so his children were supposed to live there too.”

“You almost never talk about him.”

He sighed. “Some day I’ll tell you more if you want, but right now I just want to hold you.” He tightened his arms around her and closed his eyes.

Soon—entirely too soon—the radio on her alarm clock switched on, playing a tinny version of “Lady Marmalade.” She grimaced and hit the “off” button, a huge yawn welling up in her throat.

“Time to get up.” But despite her words, she snuggled against him, dreading the thought of saying goodbye again so soon. She had long imagined him in her bedroom, and especially in her bed. But now that she had seen him lounging beneath the covers, smelled his scent on her pillow, and felt his comforting warmth against her in the dark, the bed would be haunted by his ghost, and empty without him.

“Just a few more minutes,” he mumbled, kissing her neck.

Or a few more weeks. But she forced herself wider awake and pulled out of his arms. “No, really, we have to get up. Isn’t the limo due at four thirty?”

“Mmm.” He nuzzled her shoulder, humming softly.

She reluctantly pushed him away and yanked off the covers.

“Hey!” He curled into the fetal position, or as close to it as a man of his size could manage, in reaction to the chilly air. “You’re a cruel woman.”

“Yes, I am. But you’ll have a fit if you miss your flight.”

“I do not have fits,” he declared in a regal tone, but he sat up and swept his hands through his hair, groaning as he worked out the kinks in his back and shoulders.

She turned on the bedside lamp and squinted at the light assaulting her eyes. “Go start the shower,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I thought you wanted to make sure we were ready in time for the limo.”

“Well, yeah. And if we share the shower instead of taking turns—”

“If I see you naked and wet at close range, I’ll have you up against the shower wall before you can say, ‘Pass me the soap.’” He leaned across the bed, cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her hard. “And then we’ll definitely be late.”

A tempting thought indeed, but Elizabeth restrained herself from following him into the bathroom. They showered—separately—and dressed at lightning speed, managing to arrive downstairs just as a gleaming black Town Car rolled up in front of the building. Soon they were speeding down Highway 101 toward the airport.

town carShe gasped and raised her head from his shoulder. “I completely forgot to tell you! Jane and Charles got engaged yesterday.”

He nodded, wearing a self-satisfied smile. “Charles told me he was going to propose. I told him I thought it was a good idea.”

“In other words, you gave him permission.”

He lifted his chin. “I did no such thing. I encouraged him, that’s all.”

“Call it what you like, he had your approval.” She snickered. “Anyway, they want us to be the best man and maid of honor again. They’re talking about picking a weekend in January.”

“I’m happy for them.” But his voice was remote now, and his eyes seemed trained on something far in the distance.

“Incidentally, I’m going to have to find someplace else to live after the holidays. It’s been a little awkward already, and now that they’re really back together I don’t want to be underfoot.”

“But they’ll be living in the house.”

“Don’t you remember? Charles sold it. I don’t know when the closing is scheduled, but it must be soon.”

William cleared his throat and straightened up. “Lizzy, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“Uh oh. Nobody ever introduces good news that way.”

“I hope you’ll think this is good news. I bought Charles’s house.”

“You did what?”

“I’m the mysterious buyer. The one whose name he doesn’t know.”

“You bought the house? Why?”

“Last May, I caused them a lot of pain with my interference. So when Charles told me he was selling the house, and talked about how much the place meant to them, I thought I could at least save them the pain of losing it by giving it to them.”

She laced her fingers with his. “That’s an incredibly thoughtful gesture. But it’s kind of like what you did with my job. It’s too much. They can’t possibly accept such a large gift, yet think how awkward it’s going to be for them to turn it down.”

“Then it can be a long-term loan. They can pay me back if they ever decide to sell.”

“And you’d actually take their money?” She knew him better than that.

He shrugged. “There could be other strings attached.”

“Like what?”

“We could ask for a guaranteed guest room whenever we want to visit, so you can see the cherry blossoms in the Japanese Tea Garden, or visit your family, or do anything else that would make you happy.”

“I don’t think you need to buy them a house to get that guarantee.”

“Maybe not, but it would show that I stand to gain something tangible from my investment.”

“And Jane and Charles would be like caretakers.”

“Of our guest room, yes. The rest of the house would be theirs. What do you think?”

“I think they’ll say no. But I guess you’ll have to ask them.”

“I was hoping you’d do that for me.”

Elizabeth made loud clucking noises.

He arched an eyebrow. “Just what are you implying?”

“Oh, I think you know.”

“I am not chicken. I had planned to talk to them at lunch today. But it might be easier for them to accept the gift if the offer came from you.”

She captured his face between her hands and kissed him deeply.

“What was that for?” he asked in a husky voice. “Not that I’m complaining.”

“Because you’re the sweetest, most generous man in the world, even if you’re too quick to throw money at problems. All right, I’ll talk to them. But, honestly, I don’t think they’ll accept no matter what I say.”

The limo exited the highway and turned onto the airport service road. “Already?” he said, glancing out the window. “I wish you could come with me.”

“Me too.” She reached up to smooth his hair, still damp from his shower and smelling faintly of shampoo. “But I’ll be there before you know it.”

They kissed again, but she drew back as a disturbing thought flew into her mind. “Unless it would cause problems. I mean, with Georgie’s situation, she and your grandmother aren’t going to want an outsider in the house.”

“Lizzy, you’re coming to New York. Don’t even suggest staying in California.”

“But maybe I should call Sally and see if—”

He pressed his fingers to her lips. “No,” he said, as the limo drew up to the curb. “You’re a part of my life. No one is going to treat you like an outsider.”

“But to them, that’s what I am. And it’s their house too.”

“They need to get used to having you around.”

sfo airportThe limo lurched slightly as the driver pulled William’s suitcase from the trunk. William and Elizabeth exited the limo and stood staring awkwardly at each other for a moment. Then William glanced at the driver. “Ms. Bennet will be with you in a minute.” The driver nodded and stepped away, waiting at a discreet distance.

Elizabeth couldn’t say goodbye, not yet. She grasped at the first idea that flitted through her mind. “I’ll stand in the security line with you. It’ll give us a few more minutes.”

“I don’t want to say goodbye to you there, in a crowd of disgruntled people, with no privacy.” He rested his hands on her shoulders and drew her closer. “Lizzy, how am I going to deal with this without you? It would be hard enough even with you there, but …” He sighed, his shoulders slumping.

“You’ll be fine.” She stroked his cheek, summoning all her self-control to hold back her tears. “And I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He lowered his head, his warm mouth covering hers. With a little sob, she threw her arms around his neck and poured all her love into the kiss.

Afterwards, they held each other in silence, beyond the need for words. A nearby car beeped its horn, recalling her to the present, and she lifted her head from its resting place on his chest. “You’d better go,” she said in a wobbly voice.

He nodded, but kept his arms wrapped securely around her waist.

“You don’t want to miss your flight.”

“Maybe I do,” he mumbled. He tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear.

She shook her head. “Georgie needs you.”

“And I need you.”

I’m not going to cry. ”I’ll see you soon. Now, go, before I change my mind.”

He captured her face in his hands and kissed her once more. Then he collected his suitcase and briefcase and walked away.

Elizabeth blinked hard, fighting back her tears. She knew he would turn back before entering the terminal. When he did, she saw him as a stranger might, his handsome features marred by pallor and by the lines of worry around his eyes. She waved and forced herself to smile. Then he passed through the doors of the terminal, and the first teardrop spilled onto Elizabeth’s cheek.

The driver approached her. “Are you ready to go, Ms. Bennet?”

She nodded and slid into the back seat, blinking hard. She had promised herself she wouldn’t cry in William’s presence … but now he was gone.

A wave of guilt twisted her stomach in knots; the guilt was irrational, she knew, but it didn’t seem to matter. Tears streamed down her face. She fished through her purse for a Kleenex, barely restraining a sob. He had looked so lost, so alone.

Stop it. You can’t just walk out on your obligations. You’re giving an exam Monday. You’ve got three singing jobs in the next week. And he’s not helpless. He’s survived worse than this without you. Besides, you can talk to him ten times a day, if you want.

Her arguments, logical as they were, couldn’t blot out the image of his slumped shoulders and careworn face. She couldn’t go with him, yet she couldn’t let him leave San Francisco alone.

Her heart whispered an answer, one so obvious she almost laughed at her blindness. Acting on pure instinct, she leaned forward to speak to the driver. “Please, stop.” Her timing couldn’t have been worse; they had just turned onto the freeway entrance ramp.

“What’s wrong, Ms. Bennet?”

“We need to go back to the terminal.”

“Did Mr. Darcy leave something in the limo?”

“Sort of.”

Elizabeth sat back in the seat, her hands folded tightly together, her heart pounding with so much force it seemed to shake her body.

 

cattle driveWilliam wondered if cattle on a forced march to the slaughterhouse felt this way. Probably not; they didn’t know what fate awaited them when they reached the front of the line. He knew the answer all too well. His reward would be the privilege of sitting on an airplane for hours, breathing stale air and feeling his muscles atrophy.

security lineHe glanced at his boarding pass. Seat 14C. A coach seat. He had never sat in coach before, but the first class section of the flight was full, and he needed to get home. This had also deprived him of access to the first class security line, which was both short and peaceful.

The noisy family near the front of the line, equipped with a screaming baby and a hyperactive toddler hanging on the rope line, would probably end up in his row, or if not, somewhere nearby.

security lineHe nudged his briefcase forward with his toe as he shuffled ahead a foot or two, part of a wave of shuffling that trickled gradually toward the rear of the line. The briefcase was crammed with books he’d planned to read during a relaxing stay in California. But his stay was over, the books unread, and he was alone. Again.

Elizabeth would join him in New York at her earliest opportunity, but her obligations would keep her in California for at least a week. And what if she wanted to spend Christmas Eve with her family, as the two of them had originally planned to do? He was in no position to ask her to forsake her family in favor of the Darcys’ holiday celebration. Not that we have much to celebrate this year.

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and summoned up an imaginary piano. He was learning another of Jennifer Nguyen’s compositions and needed to memorize the piece, particularly the fingering he had devised. He visualized his hands moving over the keys, but his thoughts soon drifted to Georgiana, and to the guilt that threatened to suffocate him. Elizabeth had done her best to excuse his actions, but he had neglected his sister’s welfare. He had only himself to blame for her misstep.

He shuffled forward again, finally within view of the first security checkpoint where a bored-looking woman inspected passengers’ identification. He reached into his pocket to retrieve his driver’s license.

“William!”

It couldn’t be. He must have manufactured her voice to assuage the loneliness enveloping him like a thick gray fog. But then he saw her standing next to the rope line. His eyes widened and the fog melted away.

“I need to talk to you!” Every line of her body seemed to vibrate with excitement.

salmon upstreamHe couldn’t afford to completely leave the security line; it had lengthened since his arrival, and another long wait would cause him to miss his flight. Instead, he inched his way toward the side of the rope line closest to Elizabeth, gaining a new appreciation for the challenges facing salmon fighting their way upstream.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said, dropping his briefcase and leaning across the rope to kiss her. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I have a question for you.”

He raised his eyebrows and waited.

Her eyes sparkled like twin green kaleidoscopes. “Will you marry me?”

He stared at her, uncomprehending. “What?”

“Do you want me to get down on one knee? Because I will.” Before his astonished gaze, she knelt at his feet, holding his hand in both of hers. “William Darcy, I love you with all my heart, and I can’t live without you. Will you marry me?”

His mouth dropped open, but his brain couldn’t assemble a coherent sentence.

“Please say yes,” she said, a teasing light in her eyes, “or I’m going to feel like such an idiot.”

“Yes.” He mouthed the word, emotion clogging his throat, and helped her to her feet. “Yes.” Heedless of the elastic rope stretching between them, he engulfed her in his arms. “Yes,” he whispered against her hair.

Her face brilliant with joy, Elizabeth drew his head down and planted her mouth firmly on his. Somewhere in the vague recesses of his brain he heard a smattering of applause, but it meant nothing.

“Was this totally stupid?” she asked, her smile the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. “Asking you here, I mean.”

He shook his head. “Not even a little bit.”

“But, I mean, you’re about the most privacy-conscious person on earth. How idiotic was it to propose to you in a crowded airline terminal? You didn’t even want to say goodbye to me in here, much less … this.”

“I’m too happy to care.” He toyed with her ponytail. “Besides, that’s my Lizzy. Seize the moment, full speed ahead.”

She laughed. “Act without thinking, you mean.”

He tightened his arms around her. “I wish I had half your courage. I almost proposed to you yesterday morning.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I started to, in the tea garden. But then you started talking about not wanting to leave California, and all the uncertainty and doubt.”

“But that was about jobs and places to live. When it comes to us, I don’t have any doubts.”

“Not even after last night?”

The sweetness of her smile nearly stole his breath. “Especially not after last night.”

“I convinced you to marry me by acting like an ass?” He snorted. “If only I’d known it was that simple.”

She pulled away in mock disgust. “Oh, wait. I think I just changed my mind.” She looked so lovely, her eyes gleaming with mischief, that he had to kiss her again.

“Here’s the thing,” she said, the soft glow in her eyes in the aftermath of his kiss gratifying him beyond reason. “Was there ever a point last night when you thought, ‘Maybe we just don’t belong together’?”

“Never.”

“Me neither. I mean, at first I wanted to do you some serious damage.”

“There’s that bloodthirsty streak again. Maybe I’d better change my mind.”

“Too late. You said yes and I’m holding you to it.”

He smirked and bent down to whisper in her ear. “You can hold me to anything you want, any time you want.”

She shot a narrow-eyed stare at him, pursing her lips. “Are you going to let me finish? After all, you’re the one with the plane to catch.”

He nodded meekly.

“After the urge to rip you into several dozen pieces passed, I said to myself, ‘Well, here are some things we need to work out.’ And we did. But I never doubted that we would.”

Neither had he. It made his hesitation to propose the day before all the more ridiculous. What was I afraid of? Of course she was going to say yes.

“We’re never going to be like Jane and Charles,” she continued. “You know what I mean: ‘What do you want to do tonight?’ ‘Whatever you want is fine, dear.’ ‘Oh, no, darling, whatever you want.’”

He chuckled at her spot-on imitation of Jane and Charles, complete with treble and baritone voices.

“We’re going to annoy each other sometimes. And once in a while we’re going to lose our tempers, because we’re stubborn and willful and …” She glanced around and stretched up on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. “And passionate.”

“We’re definitely that.”

“In a good and a bad way. But this is permanent, and we both know it. I can’t imagine my future without you anymore.”

William understood exactly what she meant. “When I see myself ten or twenty years from now, you’re always next to me.”

“Am I aging well?”

He chuckled. “You get more beautiful every year.”

He smiled down at her, drinking in the glow in her eyes. Passengers shuffled by on the way through the line, jostling him as they passed. Ordinarily their carelessness would have made him clench his jaw and fix a freezing glare on them, but his elation left no room for petty annoyances.

“How much time do you have left?” she asked.

He glanced at his watch and winced. ”About sixty seconds.”

“I wish I could come with you.”

“I know. And I’m warning you, your cell phone is going to be ringing off the hook.”

“Good. And you know, if you weren’t such a twit about technology, I could send you some steamy e-mails. But Sonya reads your mail, so that’s out.”

“Did you say steamy e-mails?” He licked his lips. “With an inducement like that, I might even call a truce with my computer.”

She sighed, sliding her hands up his shirtfront. “I guess I have to let you go.”

“I’m afraid so, even if it means leaving my future wife behind.”

Her eyes brightened. “I like the sound of that. Not the leaving me part, obviously. The ‘future wife’ part.”

He kissed her again and then released her. “Goodbye, future wife.”

She stepped back, but then reached out and grasped his hand, her expression solemn. “Even though I have to stay here for now, I’m with you, always. You know that, right? You aren’t alone anymore.”

The sweetness of her words washed over him like a soothing balm. He raised her hand to his lips, but it wasn’t enough. So he answered her in the only way possible, drawing her into his arms for one more kiss.

He released her, brushed his knuckles against her cheek, and whispered, “I love you.”

“Right back at you.”

She stepped away, and he joined the queue of fellow travelers, several of whom eyed him with undisguised amusement. A few murmured their congratulations, which he answered with an awkward smile and a nod. He had once witnessed a marriage proposal at a Manhattan restaurant. The waiter had delivered the engagement ring buried inside a—

The ring! He almost smacked himself in the head. Overwhelmed by Elizabeth’s proposal, he had completely forgotten the diamond ring tucked away in a corner of his briefcase. He craned his neck and saw her departing, too far away to call back.

Perhaps it was just as well. As much as he wanted to see the ring on her finger, he didn’t relish placing it there in the midst of a throng of strangers. He would arrange a suitably romantic occasion when she came to New York.

He glanced back once more and watched her vanish around a corner. My future wife.

He liked the sound of it, too.