Darcy mansion“Here you are!” Mrs. Reynolds hurried into the foyer. “Welcome!”

Elizabeth returned the housekeeper’s warm smile. “Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.”

“And we’re thrilled at the news!” Mrs. Reynolds enveloped Elizabeth in a motherly hug. “From the first time I met you, I knew you were the right girl for William. I came home from San Francisco and told Allen, ‘She’s the one. Now he just has to get up the gumption to ask her.’”

Elizabeth flashed an amused glance at William.

“Give me your coat, dear. Allen will hang it up. I’m sure Mrs. Darcy will be right—” Mrs. Reynolds’s words died at the sight of Rose gliding down the steps.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” the elderly woman said, her voice as smooth and cool as polished marble. “Welcome.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Darcy. It’s good to be here.”

“I hope your flight was pleasant.”

“It was, thank you.” Elizabeth was conscious of her hands dangling awkwardly at her sides. How did this woman manage to make her feel like a gawky teenager? She lifted her chin, fastened a confident smile on her face, and met Rose’s level gaze.

“I’m sure you’re tired from flying all night and would like to rest. Mrs. Reynolds, would you please show Elizabeth to her room?”

Staircase“Of course. No, dear, leave your suitcase. Allen will bring it.”

Elizabeth followed Mrs. Reynolds up the stairs. William started to follow, but Rose pre-empted him. “William? I need to speak to you for a moment in the library.”

The fourth-floor guest room was decorated in pale yellow and white, accented with touches of blue. “This is beautiful,” Elizabeth said softly.

“I always thought this room would make a wonderful nursery,” Mrs. Reynolds said with a sly smile.

Elizabeth chose to ignore the hint. She strolled to the balcony doors and peeked out. While she stood there, Allen arrived with Elizabeth’s suitcase and carry-on bag.

“Would you like me to unpack for you?” Mrs. Reynolds asked.

Elizabeth whirled to face her, horrified. “Oh, no, thanks. I can do it.” Perhaps a high-class lady would have taken for granted that someone else would unpack her clothes, but a high-class lady wouldn’t have a haphazardly packed suitcase.

“What can I fix you for breakfast, dear? You must be hungry.”

“Actually, they fed us on the plane.”

“Airline food.” Mrs. Reynolds sniffed. “I’ve got fresh-baked blueberry muffins downstairs, still warm from the oven. Or I could make eggs, any way you want them, or pancakes or French toast. Just name it.”

“A muffin sounds good.”

“With coffee or tea?”

“Coffee, please.” Elizabeth could no longer suppress the yawn she’d been fighting.

“Poor dear, sitting up on a plane all night! You make yourself comfortable and I’ll bring your breakfast up here. I can set a table in the sitting room.”

“Oh, no, I don’t want to be any trouble. I’ll come downstairs.”

“It’s no trouble,” Mrs. Reynolds called over her shoulder, already on her way out of the room. “You get yourself settled in. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Elizabeth smiled to herself as she unzipped her suitcase. She had never met anyone who better deserved the label “mother hen.”

She carried a pile of clothing to the walk-in closet, stopping to gawk at the large space, fitted out with shelves, drawers, and rods at various heights. She reached up for a hanger, and shrieked as a pair of arms grabbed her around the waist.

“Sorry.” William’s deep voice rumbled in her ear. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He pulled her against him, his breath hot on her neck.

She wriggled away from him. “I bet your grandmother would throw a fit if she knew you were in here.”

“You’re right. She called me into the library just now to lecture me on ‘proper decorum where female guests are concerned.’ But I don’t care. I haven’t touched you or kissed you in a week.”

She looped her arms around his neck and admired his wicked leer. “Are you trying to lead me astray?”

“As far as possible,” he muttered, leaning down to nuzzle her neck.

When he began to nudge her out of the closet and toward the bed, she pulled out of his arms. “Will, I’m exhausted. I need some rest.”

“No problem.” He scooped her up and trudged over to the bed. “We’ll take a nap together.” He collapsed onto the bed with her, his fingers immediately going to work unbuttoning her blouse.

“No!” Elizabeth struggled into a sitting position and grabbed his hands. “Mrs. Reynolds is going to be back any second with my breakfast.”

“When she sees that the bedroom door is shut, she’ll put it in the sitting room and leave.”

“And you don’t mind if everybody in the house knows you’re in here with me?”

“How would they know?”

“They’ll see you sneaking out of here. Or they’ll hear something. Or they’ll go looking for you and figure out where you are by process of elimination. The house isn’t that big.”

“Lizzy …” he groaned. He flopped onto his back and covered his eyes with his forearm.

“You know I’m right.”

He sighed and sat up, his expression sullen. “Fine. I guess I can wait a little longer.” He hefted himself off the bed and loomed over her, scowling.

“That’s a good boy.”

Hard as he tried to go on pouting, a reluctant smile flitted around the corners of his mouth. “Will you at least promise to have lunch with me, after your nap?”

She winced. “I’m meeting Laura Church at noon.”

His scowl snapped back into focus. “Who?”

“My thesis advisor. Remember? You met her at the reception after the Juilliard benefit recital.”

“You have to see her today?”

“She’s leaving town tomorrow and won’t be back till after the holidays. I wanted to ask her advice about my job search.”

His loud sigh spoke volumes. “All right. Where are you meeting her?”

“At that little French restaurant where I used to work. That way I can say hello to the staff at the same time.”

“It’s in the Village?”

“In Soho. And then I wanted to do some Christmas shopping nearby.”

“All right. That works.” He said the words quietly, as though to himself.

“What works?”

“Never mind.” He shook his head. “Will you meet me for coffee after you finish shopping?”

“That sounds nice. Where?”

“At La Lanterna di Vittorio.”

She laughed. “You still remember that place? Oh, wait, you said you went back a few times last summer, didn’t you?”

“When can you be there?”

“Let’s say four o’clock. That way we’ll still have plenty of time to get ready for the party.”

“Okay.” He bent over and kissed her, softly at first but with growing hunger. “I’d better get out of here while I still can.”

“I’ll see you later.”

He paused at the door. “I have to go out on an errand this morning. If I’m not here when you’re ready to leave, just find Allen and tell him where you want to go.”

“But that’s so much trouble for him. I can catch a bus right out on Fifth Avenue that stops just a couple of blocks from the restaurant.”

He gave her a stern look. “Ask Allen to drive you. My future wife does not need to ride the bus.” He kissed her again and departed.

“Yes, sir,” she called after him, her lips twitching into a smile. It echoed a similar conversation at the airport while waiting for her suitcase. Unbeknownst to her, he had instructed Sonya to upgrade her airplane ticket, the one she had insisted on buying herself, to first class. When she had thanked him, though with a mild protest, he had declared that his future wife didn’t need to fly coach.

blueberry muffinsAt some point she would have to draw a line, but upgraded transportation seemed harmless. But she was teetering on a treacherous slope. Next he might rent her a penthouse till the wedding, because his future wife shouldn’t live in a fifth-floor walk-up. Or he would offer her a generous allowance, because his future wife shouldn’t have to work.

She was still pondering the matter when Mrs. Reynolds arrived with a basket of muffins bursting with blueberries and a pot of coffee exuding a faint hazelnut fragrance. Because his future wife shouldn’t have to walk downstairs for breakfast.

 

Vivid memories flooded William’s mind as he stood on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Six months ago he had stood in the same spot on the night of their first date, which he had almost ruined with an overdose of anxiety. If not for his frantic plea for a second chance, she would have walked out of the café, and out of his life, before their relationship had even begun. But things were different now. She wasn’t going to walk away this time. They had come too far together, and he meant too much to her now. Didn’t he?

arch at washington squareHe jammed his hands into his trouser pockets, only to realize a moment later that he was jingling his loose change. He tried the pockets of his overcoat instead. Better. Nothing to fidget with.

dog runAt least the day was pleasant, sunny and unusually warm for New York in late December. Restless and in need of exercise, he had instructed Allen to drop him off at Washington Square. He had wandered through the park with his overcoat unbuttoned, noting the various distractions: holiday-season tourists posing beneath the arch, canine visitors frolicking in the dog run, and two parka-clad men matching wits at chess, their pawns and rooks casting angular shadows across the concrete chess table in the late-afternoon sun.

Greenwich Village street sceneDespite his detour, he had arrived at the café twenty minutes early. Rather than stand still and let his nerves run amok, he had continued on to Bleecker Street, the eclectic heart of the Village. Tattoo parlors and vintage clothing boutiques lined the street, shoulder to shoulder with tiny delis and hole-in-the-wall pizza places. The Village wasn’t William’s territory—he was an uptown New Yorker—and his previous visits here had been restricted to the café. It seemed impossible that this block, vibrating with earthy vitality, could belong to the same city that hosted the posh high-rises bordering Central Park, the soaring towers of Midtown, and the graceful brownstones tucked away on the Upper West Side’s tree-lined streets.

cafe exteriorHis walk had consumed another ten minutes, depositing him back in front of La Lanterna di Vittorio with time to spare. How long had he been standing here, his hands still buried in his coat pockets? He checked his watch. Five past four. Then he saw Elizabeth turn the corner. His heart, echoing its response six months before, executed a jittering dance.

“Hi,” she said, greeting him with a brilliant smile. She turned her face up to his for a kiss. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long. My shopping took a little longer than I thought.”

He reached for her shopping bags. “I always expect you about five minutes late, so you’re right on time.”

She laughed. “Boy, do you have my number! Of course, I couldn’t be on time by Mr. Punctuality’s standards unless I showed up fifteen minutes early.”

“You sound just like Charles.” Grinning, he ushered her up the steps into the café. “How was your lunch?”

“Good. Laura’s doing great; she just won a major award for a journal article she wrote. And she said she’d help me look for a job. She knows tons of people, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.”

“That sounds good.” He didn’t add that he would prefer it if nothing surfaced. He still cherished the hope that she would travel with him, but this wasn’t the time to raise that difficult subject.

An employee standing near the door greeted them warmly. “Hello, Mr. Darcy. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

cafe interior“I’ve been traveling.”

“Well, it’s good to have you back. I assume you want to sit over there?”

William nodded and led Elizabeth to the table where they had sat on their first date. He ordered for them: two cappuccinos with extra foam, one of them decaf, and a slice of tiramisu.

“You’re practically a regular,” Elizabeth remarked. “How on earth did that happen?”

“I used to come here in the afternoons with a book and drink herbal tea. One day a customer recognized me and made a fuss. After that, the staff remembered me.”

“As though they’d need help remembering a handsome guy who’s a good tipper. She even knew which table you’d want.”

“I always took this table if it was open. I’d sit here alone, missing you, and I’d imagine you walking in and joining me.”

“Well, we’re together now. And recreating our first date, apparently. You ordered the same thing we had that night, right down to the two forks for one piece of tiramisu.”

He reached out and clasped her hand in both of his. “Lizzy, there’s something we need to talk about. Something important.”

“That doesn’t sound good.” Her smile faded.

“I went to see my cardiologist a few days ago.”

Her grip on his hand tightened. “Oh, no. What is it?”

“Don’t worry; I’m fine. But when I told her I was getting married, she mentioned something.”

Elizabeth placed her free hand on top of his, a frown compressing her brow. Once, she would have filled the silence with anxious questions. But she had learned to wait, to give him time to tell his story. The thought gave him fresh courage.

“I think you know that my father died of a heart attack when he was forty-five. My grandfather also died of a heart attack, just before his fiftieth birthday. And my great-grandfather died at forty—another heart attack.”

“Are you afraid the same thing will happen to you?”

“Probably not, because I’ve gotten better medical care. But Dr. Rosemont said that my particular heart defect is suspected to be hereditary, and based on my family tree, it looks that way.”

“Wouldn’t they have been terribly ill when they were young, like you were? And even if not, wouldn’t the doctors have diagnosed it eventually?”

“Diagnostic tools weren’t as good back then. And if they had a milder constriction than mine, they might not have had obvious symptoms. Dr. Rosemont said that if it isn’t treated, it gradually damages the heart, and people tend to die in their forties or fifties.”

“But it was detected in your case, and they treated it. So you’re going to live a long time, right?”

He raised her hand to his lips, touched by the plaintive tone of her question. “I hope so. But—”

tiramisu Their order arrived, interrupting him. He released Elizabeth’s hands, and they sat in tense silence until the server departed.

“But?” She watched him with anxious eyes.

He took a deep breath. This was the moment he had been dreading. “If my condition is hereditary, I could pass it on to our children.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh.”

“Lizzy, you have no idea what it was like for my mother. She lived in continual terror that I would drop dead some day without warning.”

“You’ve told me how protective she was.”

“She worried about me constantly.” Emotion clogged his throat, making it difficult to get the words out. “It frightened her if I got breathless going up the stairs, or if I got excited and my heart started beating faster. She rarely let me out of her sight except at school, and I was never permitted to leave the house without an adult.”

“Until Richard moved to New York. Then she let you go out with him, right?”

“It was hard to convince her. And she gave him a long list of rules, which I don’t need to tell you he completely ignored.”

“I take it you ignored them too?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

He nodded. “I was scared at first. Mamma had taught me that if I exerted myself, bad things would happen. But Richard was only a step or two shy of godhood to me. Anything he did, I wanted to do.” He paused, studying the remaining foam on his cappuccino. “My point is that all the worry gradually stole her energy, her zest. Maybe …” He stopped, balancing at the edge of some dangerous emotional ground.

She reached out and captured his hand. “Tell me.”

He took a deep breath. “My father must have fallen in love with that zest. I understand, because it’s one of the things I love most about you. Maybe when it faded …” He shrugged, unable to voice the obvious conclusion.

The fierce light in her eyes startled him, and her grip on his hand tightened. “No. I won’t let you do this. William Darcy, you are not to blame for your parents’ mistakes. If I mellow with age and have a little less ‘zest’ twenty years from now, are you going to leave me?”

“Of course not.”

“And did it ever occur to you that maybe your mother lost some of her zest because her husband took away her operatic career and then walked out on her?”

It had occurred to him, but he had still ended up blaming himself.

“Of course it was hard for her when you got sick, and of course she worried about you. But I bet you were the greatest joy in her life.”

He didn’t answer, letting her words wash over him. His eyes dropped to study the scarred surface of the table.

“In fact,” she said, “it makes me think of that photo in your sitting room, of the two of you at Pemberley. How long after your surgery was it taken?”

“About two years.”

“Well, it’s obvious in that photo how happy she is. Because she’s with her son—her bright, talented, wonderful son.”

She stroked his hand, and he struggled to control the emotion constricting his throat. When she spoke again, her voice was gentle. “You didn’t think I was going to change my mind about marrying you because of this, did you?”

“No, but if you married someone else, someone who didn’t have these problems … ”

“I don’t want to marry someone else. I want you.”

He exhaled all the tension in his body. He had known that she would respond this way, but he had needed to hear the words.

“Besides, you promised to marry me, and you’re not getting out of it that easily.”

He chuckled and twined his fingers with hers. “So you’re saying I’m stuck with you.”

“You got it,” she answered. Then her smile faded. “But I have to ask. Are you thinking that maybe we shouldn’t have children?”

His children were essential to preserving the Darcy name and its legacy. Then again, was it fair to subject Elizabeth to the pain of having a child with a chronic illness? He had struggled with this question and had yet to find an answer. “I don’t know.”

“Here’s what I think. Since we know it’s a possibility, the doctors will be on the lookout for it. If it happens, the doctors can treat it, like they did with you, and afterwards the child can live a normal life. ” She paused. “But if it did come down to a choice—between being with you and having children, I mean—I’d choose you.”

There was only one possible response to her declaration: he leaned over and kissed her. “I hate to think of you going through everything Mamma did,” he whispered hoarsely.

“I won’t. She was basically alone. If it happens to our child, we’ll have each other to lean on.” Her gaze, full of warm assurance, captured and held his. “And these days I bet they’ve got more effective treatments, with lower risk.”

She was right. He and Dr. Rosemont had discussed this point.

“And regardless, we’ll make sure that William, Jr., or Wilhelmina, has a happier, healthier childhood than you did. Okay?”

“I love you,” he murmured, and kissed her again.

diamond ringHe sat back and sipped his capuccino, noting that the café workers watching with interest. Too happy to care, he reached into his pocket and drew out a black velvet box, the same one he had pocketed in Elizabeth’s dining room on that terrible night a month ago. He opened the box and removed the glittering diamond ring. “I believe this is yours,” he said.

Her eyes shining, she extended her left hand, and he slid the ring onto her finger. “It’s even more beautiful than I remembered,” she said softly.

They studied it together and then shared a smile. I could never leave her, no matter what. I’d be leaving my own heart behind. He had never understood his father’s actions, but they seemed even more incomprehensible now.

She glanced up and giggled. “Look.”

mistletoeHe followed her gaze, and for the first time he noticed the sprig of mistletoe hanging above their table. “Well, you know what that means.”

“Except we already kissed. A few times, in fact.”

“That was before we saw the mistletoe, so it doesn’t count.” He leaned toward her.

She leaned forward as well, meeting him halfway. “Are those William Darcy’s rules for mistletoe?” she murmured, an impish light in her eyes.

“Hush.”

She arched an eyebrow, but he silenced her retort with his lips.

 

libraryElizabeth smiled her thanks and accepted a glass of wine from Allen, who was tending bar in the library. So far, the Darcys’ Christmas party had been more pleasant than she had expected. Rose had proved a gracious hostess, repeatedly introducing Elizabeth as William’s fiancée without even a hint of indigestion, until Elizabeth had begun to wonder if finishing schools taught advanced acting classes. Or perhaps Rose believed that anything less than full support would imply criticism of William’s judgment. Rose had even cast an approving glance over Elizabeth’s black strapless dress and the upswept hairdo she had managed with emergency assistance from Mrs. Reynolds.

Though anything would look good when accessorized by this ring. Elizabeth couldn’t stop staring in awe at her left hand. The simple platinum setting allowed the fiery diamond to take a well-deserved starring role. She didn’t need to be told that William, true to his old-money upbringing, had invested more in the quality of the stone than in its size. Not that it was small, but neither was it flashy or vulgar.

In other words, Caroline Bingley would turn up her nose at it. Aside from what it represents, that is. Caroline had probably heard about William’s engagement by now. I wonder if she’s in sackcloth and ashes, weeping and rending her garments. Elizabeth snickered.

A statuesque brunette wearing a cream silk pantsuit and a haughty expression approached the bar. She acknowledged Elizabeth with a polite nod that ended in a curious glance at the ring. Elizabeth had been the object of plenty of curious glances, along with envious ones, especially whenever William stood beside her.

wine glassesThe brunette collected her glass of wine and returned to two other youngish women in designer dresses, both sporting designer noses to match. To Elizabeth’s anxious eye each one looked at least six feet tall and scarcely over a hundred pounds, with flawlessly sculpted eyebrows registering a permanent look of surprise.

Elizabeth, temporarily lacking a conversational partner, didn’t want to be seen standing alone, nor did she want to force her way into a circle of friends who might find a stranger’s interruption unwelcome. As the evening had progressed, people had been less inclined to mix, instead settling into small groups of friends, or at least acquaintances. She scanned the horizon for another guest standing alone, or for an awkward group in need of a conversation starter, but she saw no one. William stood across the room with Robert and two men Rose had introduced as directors of DarCom, the family’s multinational corporation. Judging from their serious expressions, they were talking business, something her approach would disrupt.

cream puffsSeeking a temporary occupation, she wandered over to the food table. Step away from the cream puffs. She had already devoured three, all filled with Mrs. Reynolds’s legendary chocolate mousse. That meant penance in the form of a long, brisk walk in the park tomorrow. She snatched a carrot stick and wandered over to study an antique map of England displayed in an ornate gilt frame. Snatches of a stage-whispered conversation drifted over from the gaggle of stylish women standing nearby.

“So what do you think, Fiona? Is he serious about this, or is she just the flavor of the month?”

“Now, be fair. He doesn’t change girls that often. He was with me for almost two years.”

“All right, then, flavor of the year. But I suppose longevity isn’t the issue. After all, in all that time you were together, he never proposed to you.”

“What do you suppose the attraction is?” mused a third, her voice higher-pitched than the others.

“She’s pretty enough, and she seems pleasant.” This came from Fiona, the brunette from the bar.

“Such a ringing endorsement. Well, no wonder he proposed to a nobody from—where was it?”

“California. San Francisco, I think. They say she’s a musician. A singer.”

“And that would appeal to him,” Fiona said. “His mother was an opera singer. He didn’t talk about her much, but I don’t think he ever really got over her death.”

“A mama’s boy? I would never have guessed it, with that strong jaw and those bedroom eyes and that …body.” A theatrical sigh followed this remark. “And so all this time, he was looking for a musician? A shame you never took singing lessons, Fiona. That might have clinched it.”

“What size do you think the diamond is?” the highest voice chirped. “Two carats, maybe?”

“Not much more, and such a plain setting. Utterly uninspiring. Though I suppose it was big enough to impress her.”

“But have you gotten a good look at it?” Fiona asked. “It’s gorgeous. I’m sure the stone must be flawless. As for the setting, it’s what I would have expected him to choose. William isn’t the flashy type.”

Another woman, her short cap of auburn hair styled in a spiky cut Elizabeth had studied with envy, approached the group. “I’ve been doing a bit of research.”

“Oh, but you’re much too late. We know everything. She’s a penniless musician from California.”

“A music teacher. Not quite the same thing.You know what they say. Those who can, do. Those who can’t …” Soft giggles followed that remark.

“But she may have other talents. He wouldn’t be the first man who was led to the altar by his—”

“Taylor!” Fiona hissed. “That’s enough.”

“That can’t be the explanation,” the auburn-haired woman purred. “He doesn’t have to get married to get plenty of that. I mean, seriously, what woman in this room wouldn’t jump him, given the opportunity?”

General laughter followed this remark, punctuated by a high-pitched giggle. An involuntary glance showed them all gazing in William’s direction. He looked delectable in his new black suit with satin lapels, a black tie, and a flawless white shirt. Elizabeth, with assistance from Georgiana, had bullied him into buying this contemporary version of formal wear during their Thanksgiving shopping expedition, though she had doubted he would ever wear it. She knew that he also wore her birthday gift to him, the onyx cufflinks.

He glanced up, perhaps feeling the hungry eyes crawling over his frame. As Elizabeth watched, he noticed the quartet of gossipers first. Then he locked eyes with her, and his lips curved into a sweet, breath-robbing smile. Eat your hearts out, you smug, superior …

“Sex on legs,” Taylor sighed. “So tell us, Fiona. Does he look as good out of his clothes as in them?”

Fiona, perhaps finally noticing Elizabeth’s presence nearby, whispered an inaudible reply that provoked nervous laughter from the others.

Elizabeth’s heart pounded and her fingers tightened around her wine glass. She hated the idea that at least one woman in this room, and perhaps others, had lain naked in his arms. Fiona—polished, elegant Fiona—had known the warmth of his lips as they devoured her body. She had clutched his strong shoulders and teased the dark hairs sprinkled over his broad chest, perhaps even tracing his scar with a gentle finger. She had gazed into his dark eyes, gone opaque with the sweet agony of possession. She had trembled at his rough cry, the one so often torn from his throat at the moment of release. And she had shuddered beneath him, transported to ecstasy by the strength and heat of his—

Enough. Elizabeth dug her fingernails into her palm. William was hers now, and she had no reason to doubt his fidelity. Besides, he might have shared his body with others, but not his heart. That, she knew he had given only to her.

With a burst of frenetic energy, she strode across the room to join Georgiana, who was studying the glittering twenty-foot Christmas tree in front of the patio doors. “Hi, Georgie. How’s it going?”

ornaments“Okay.” Georgiana’s sigh suggested otherwise.

“Nobody your age here, huh?”

Georgiana shrugged. “There never is. Usually Will and Richard talk to me, but they’re mad at me. So is Gran.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Georgiana asked, rolling her eyes. “They’re scared that everybody will find out I was arrested.”

Elizabeth couldn’t honestly deny the remark, but she felt an obligation to defend William. “I’m sure they’d prefer to keep it quiet, but that’s mostly for your sake.”

Georgiana’s only response was a skeptical glance and a soft snort.

“Okay, then, it’s partly for your sake. And William isn’t mad at you.”

“He is too. Gran made him come home from California because of me.”

“She didn’t make him. He came back because he was worried about you, and he wanted to help.”

“Whatever.” Georgiana sighed and stared at the tree.

Elizabeth decided to try a lighter subject. “He looks good in that suit we nagged him into buying, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah. But he always looks good. Is that why you first noticed him? Because he’s such a hunk?”

“Actually, it was because of his piano playing, though it didn’t hurt that he’s so nice to look at.” Elizabeth continued quickly, afraid of sounding shallow. “But then I got to know him and found out how special he is.”

“All my friends have major crushes on him. And I guess you know that three women he used to go out with are here.”

“No, I didn’t.” Elizabeth’s stomach clenched. She knew about one, and that was enough.

“Fiona Wright is over there, the one with the dark hair. And then …” Georgiana craned her neck, scanning the room.

“Thanks, but I’d really rather not know.”

“Are you jealous?”

Elizabeth told herself that she was imagining the hopeful note in Georgiana’s voice. “No. It’s hard to explain. I’d just rather not think about his ex-girlfriends.”

“Because he had sex with them?”

“Georgie!” Elizabeth, her face instantly hot, darted quick glances around them.

“I’m not supposed to know. Gran thinks it would stunt my growth or something. But when he goes on a date and doesn’t get home till after breakfast, it’s like, duh.” She rolled her eyes again.

Elizabeth smiled weakly and focused on the tree.

“Let me see your ring,” Georgiana said after a lengthy pause.

Elizabeth extended her hand. “He just gave it to me this afternoon, at the little café where we had our first date.”

“It’s pretty. Did you pick it, or did Will?”

“He did.”

“I thought so. It’s like what Gran always talks about. Restrained elegance; nothing too big or flashy. I bet you wanted a bigger one.”

Elizabeth ignored the implicit suggestion that she lacked the taste to appreciate restrained elegance. “No, I think it’s perfect.”

Georgiana turned back to the tree, reaching out to touch one of the fragile glass ornaments. “I guess Will is going to move to California now, since he’s marrying you.”

“No, we’re going to live in New York. Didn’t he tell you that I’m moving back here?”

“He never tells me anything. He didn’t even tell me he was engaged till last night. But I already knew. I heard Gran talking about the wedding.”

“Oh. We haven’t talked about it yet.”

“She wants it to be in New York. And she wants it to be, like, a year from now, so there’s time to plan everything. Will didn’t like that. He said he wasn’t waiting a year.”

“I agree with him.” Elizabeth exhaled loudly before she could stop herself. Perhaps Rose was betting that the relationship wouldn’t survive a long engagement.

“Well, don’t blame me,” Georgiana huffed. “She said it. I didn’t.”

“Here are my two best girls.” William stepped between Elizabeth and Georgiana and wrapped an arm around each of their shoulders. “Are you two talking about me?” he asked, grinning at Elizabeth.

“What an ego. Always thinking you’re the center of the universe.” Elizabeth doubted it was proper decorum, but she kissed his smooth-shaven cheek anyway.

“As long as I’m the center of your universe.” His grin broadened. “Gran wants me to play for the guests, and I need an invisible page turner. Any idea where I could find one?”

Georgiana wrinkled her nose. “Is that supposed to be funny? It sounds so lame.”

“It’s kind of an inside joke,” Elizabeth said.

“Whatever. I’m going to ask Gran if I can go up to my room now.”

“Don’t you want to stay and hear me play?” William asked.

“I already heard it about a hundred times. You were practicing yesterday for, like, hours.”

William watched her go, his cheerful mood deflated. “She used to love to hear me play.”

“I’m sure she still does,” Elizabeth said, twining her fingers with his. “She’s just confused and unhappy, and she’s taking it out on everyone. Besides, think how dull a party like this must be for a girl her age.”

pianoAfter a brief conference with Rose, Georgiana left the room without a backward glance. William led Elizabeth to the piano. “Sit down,” he said, seating himself and patting the bench beside him.

“No, I’ll just stand over here.”

“Lizzy, tonight we announced our engagement. There’s nothing wrong with us sharing the spotlight.”

“Well … okay.” She joined him on the bench.

The guests, noticing William’s movement to the piano, clustered nearby, and the buzz of conversation subsided to a soft hum. After flinging a sly wink at Elizabeth, he began to play the rambunctious medley of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Let it Snow”1 with which he had closed his recital at the conservatory. She studied the faces of the guests as he played. Some of the listeners tapped a foot or swayed slightly to the beat, and most wore smiles that broadened as the music drove toward an energetic peak. Even Rose seemed to be enjoying the music.

At the conclusion of the piece, the guests clamored for more. He launched into a lush, pensive rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”2 His music dissolved her insecurities about Fiona, her annoyance at Georgiana’s petty slights, even her worries about Rose’s plans for the wedding. She glanced at her ring and then at the man beside her, and nothing else mattered.

 

The impromptu concert signaled the end of the evening, as Rose had no doubt intended. The guests drifted away until only the family remained. Robert and Eleanor stood with Rose, inspecting the Christmas tree and talking in soft voices. William lounged on the sofa beside Elizabeth, his arm resting behind her head. Richard sagged in a nearby armchair, a half-empty glass of scotch dangling from his hand. For the past several minutes he had regaled Elizabeth with tales of his recent exploits in Barbados, while she tried to understand his unusual perspective.

“I admit,” she said, “I can see why it would be exciting to pick up a stranger in a bar for a one-night stand, especially in a situation where you’re both far from home and you know you’ll never see each other again. But when that makes up the bulk of your love life and you’re doing it all the time, what about the risks?”

“I’m careful. No glove, no love.”

She considered it pointless to mention the high failure rate of condoms, so she tried another approach. “What if the woman turns out to be a homicidal maniac?”

“Well, yeah,” Richard said. “That would put a damper on the festivities. But it’s all part of the package. The thrill of the unknown, yadda yadda.”

“So it’s all about living on the razor’s edge?” She shook her head. “Why don’t you try something safer, like hang-gliding?”

He chuckled. “You know, I’ve always wanted to try that. But mostly I’m into sports of the indoor persuasion.”

“I don’t know. All that bed-hopping sounds like a lonely way to live.” She watched Richard’s reaction carefully, but he simply shrugged and sipped his scotch.

“Amen.” William tightened his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “You should try a relationship some time.”

Richard snorted. “That settling-down stuff is fine for you lovebirds. I’m not cut out for it.”

Elizabeth wanted to ask when he and Charlotte had last spoken, but at that moment Eleanor called from across the room, “Are you ready to go, Richard, or are you going to get home on your own?”

“No, I’m coming.” He rose to his feet, as did William and Elizabeth. “Does your cousin-to-be get a good night kiss?” he asked.

“You bet.” She stepped forward and kissed his cheek.

“Not quite what I had in mind, but the old man here would probably pummel me into jelly if I tried for anything more.”

“Count on it,” William retorted, threading his arm around Elizabeth’s waist.

The Fitzwilliams departed, and Rose stepped into the kitchen for a word with Mrs. Reynolds. William escorted Elizabeth to the fourth floor and through the central sitting area to her bedroom door.

“So I guess we’re official,” she said. She reached up to smooth his hair.

“Did you enjoy yourself tonight?”

“More than I thought I would.”

“And everyone was nice to you?”

“Oh, yes. Especially Fiona Wright.” She raised an eyebrow.

She didn’t have long to wait for his pained wince. “Who told you about Fiona?”

“Georgie did, but I already knew.”

“How?”

“I overheard Fiona talking with some friends. Two years, you were with her?”

“It wasn’t anything like it is with us. She’s intelligent and interested in the arts, and … it was convenient. For both of us.”

“I understand from Georgie that she wasn’t your only ex in attendance.”

“No,” he said with a sigh. “And I’m sure that makes it seem like I was …” He sighed, wearing a pained expression.

“The Don Juan of the Upper East Side?”

He nodded, his eyes in full basset-hound mode.

She allowed him to suffer for only a few seconds. Then she shook her head. “It doesn’t. These are the people you know. Where else were you going to find girlfriends? By picking up strangers, like Richard? Besides, I can’t argue with your taste. Fiona was the classiest woman I met tonight.”

“And when it comes to my taste, let’s not forget that I also chose you.”

“Good recovery!” She touched his cheek. “It was just a bit of a shock to hear one woman ask another what you look like naked.”

“Oh, God. Did that really happen?”

She nodded. “It’s partly my fault. If I didn’t want to hear them gossip about us, I should have walked away.” Yeah, right. Like that was going to happen.

“I’m sorry, cara. I should have asked Gran not to invite Fiona and the others. But their parents and grandparents are her friends, and they’re on the guest list every year.”

Elizabeth wondered if Rose had invited them as a test of her grace under pressure. “No, I can hear it now, if they’d been snubbed. ‘His fiancée must be insecure; she can’t handle having his old girlfriends around.’ It’s a no-win situation.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist and stepped closer, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “You know it means nothing, right? Fiona is still a good friend, but the rest of our relationship was over long ago.”

“Actually, I’m glad to hear that you were able to stay friends with an ex-girlfriend.”

“I’m still on good terms with most of them.”

“Hmm. You, friends with a bevy of beautiful women; they were all beautiful, right? I take it back. That doesn’t sound so good after all.”

“I said ‘on good terms,’ not ‘collecting a harem.’ Besides, you have lots of male friends.”

“Not ex-boyfriends, though.” She paused. “If you and I had broken up for good, I don’t think we could have been friends.”

“We couldn’t.” The intensity in his eyes made her shiver. “It would have hurt too much to see you, to be reminded of how much I missed you. But I wasn’t in love with Fiona, or with any of the others.”

“Were they in love with you?”

“I don’t think so. I always made it clear that I wasn’t interested in anything serious.”

Elizabeth doubted the warning would protect a woman’s heart where William was concerned.

“Can we forget about Fiona?” he whispered hotly in her ear. “Because I’m far more interested in you.”

She looped her arms around his neck and pressed close to him. “Good idea.”

“I was so proud of you tonight,” he murmured, pausing between words to press steamy kisses to her neck. “Everyone kept telling me how lovely you were, and how much they enjoyed talking to you. Even Gran was impressed.”

“I’m glad,” she said, the words little more than a breathy moan.

His lips traveled along her bare shoulder and then lower, toward the hint of cleavage above the neckline of her strapless dress. “I’ve wanted to do this all night,” he muttered between kisses. “I kept thinking about the last time you wore this dress, that night at the penthouse, and how much I enjoyed undressing you.”

His hands stroked their way to her back, and she thought she felt him tug at her zipper. “Will.” She clutched his shoulders and tried to push him away. “You can’t take off my dress. Someone could see us.”

“Then let’s go into your bedroom, where we won’t be disturbed.”

“William, no. Your grandmother’s room is right upstairs from mine. She might hear something.”

He sighed. “You have more excuses than any woman I’ve ever met.” But he removed his hand from the doorknob.

“So I guess we’d better say good night.”

“Good night?” He shook his head. “I forgot to tell you my plan, didn’t I?”

“Your plan?”

He trailed his index finger slowly along her shoulder and up her neck, igniting a shivery path of sparks. “We’ll wait till Gran and the Reynoldses go upstairs; it won’t be long. Then it’ll be safe for you to come down to my room. I’ll be waiting for you.”

“But … No, I can’t.” She shuddered at the thought of Rose catching her tiptoeing down the stairs.

“Of course you can. No one will see you.”

“You don’t know that,” she whispered fiercely. “And someone could hear us.”

“Lizzy, I have the third floor to myself. The other bedrooms are on the fifth and sixth floors, except yours, and you’ll be with me. We’ll have plenty of privacy.”

“We can’t be sure they won’t hear us. What if someone decides to get a snack or a cup of tea in the middle of the night? Or what if the sound-proofing isn’t as good as you think? I heard you playing the piano when I was napping this morning. I can’t believe the idea doesn’t bother you.”

“We’ll be quiet. It might even be exciting, to try not to make any noise.” He bent down and began kissing her neck again.

She squirmed away from him as a fresh set of humiliating scenarios jittered through her brain. “What about the morning, when I have to go back to my room? What if someone sees me running around in my bathrobe? Or what if someone goes looking for me early in the morning and I’m not in my room?”

He shrugged, as though he had anticipated this objection. “No problem. We can set the alarm early, before anyone else is up.”

“How early? I bet Mrs. Reynolds gets up before dawn.”

“Then what would you suggest?”

“That you kiss me good night and go down to your room, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Out of the question.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “Lizzy, we’ve been apart too much. Now, finally, we’re together, and my ring is on your finger. How can you expect me to sleep alone, knowing you’re just one floor above me?”

“Your grandmother expects us to behave properly, and I’m sure she’s watching to see what we do.”

“And it’s improper for me to want to wake up with my arms around the woman I plan to marry?”

“By her standards, yes. As you know perfectly well.”

“But some things are more important. Like this.” He pressed her against the door, his heated gaze burning into hers. Then he captured her head in his hands and kissed her thoroughly, expertly, ravishing her mouth until her lips tingled and her body throbbed. “I’m starving for you,” he rasped. “And I’m not just talking about making love. I want you to be the last thing I see at night, and the first thing in the morning. I’ve spent too many nights dreaming about you and then waking up alone.”

His lips descended to devour hers again, and his hand slipped between their bodies to cup her breast through her chiffon dress. He pressed against her, his body as hard and unyielding as the door behind her. Heat flooded her, flaming rivers surging through her veins. Only he could put out the fire. Only he could send her hurtling through the universe of shuddering delight he had taught her to crave.

rose petals“Just say yes, cara. We’ll go down to my room and make love all night, till we can’t move. I’ve got a supply of candles and rose petals, and silk sheets on the bed.” His hot breath singed her cheek. “No other woman has ever shared that bed with me, cara. Please, say yes, and be the first.”

He stared down at her, his eyes twin pools of heat, so deep they were almost black. She opened her mouth to say the word those eyes compelled her to say, her resistance shredded by his skillful assault. He was right; they had spent too much time apart. Perhaps they could be quiet. Perhaps she could tiptoe back to her room in the pre-dawn hours. Perhaps—

“Elizabeth? Are you—” Mrs. Reynolds’s words were cut off by a sharp indrawn breath. “Oh, dear, I’m so sorry!”

William took a step backward, but he kept his back to Mrs. Reynolds. Elizabeth pushed past him and raced after the housekeeper, who was trotting through the sitting room toward the staircase as though pursued by baying hounds. “Mrs. Reynolds, please, wait.”

Mrs. Reynolds turned back, her face a bright shade of rose. “Please forgive me, dear. I never meant to intrude.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” Elizabeth said in as steady a voice as she could manage. “William was just saying good night. He’ll be leaving in a minute.”

“I was just coming up to see if you needed anything.” The pink-cheeked housekeeper shook her head. “I suppose we’re going to have to make some adjustments. It’s been thirty years since we’ve had a young married couple living in this house.”

Elizabeth couldn’t quite meet Mrs. Reynolds’s gaze. “Thank you for checking on me. I have everything I need for tonight.”

“All right, dear. I’ll say good night and be on my way. And please tell William how sorry I am for the intrusion. By the way, I’m the last one to head upstairs, so the house should be quiet until morning.”

Elizabeth almost laughed at this blatant “the coast is clear” announcement. After Mrs. Reynolds left, she turned back and found William behind her, wearing a resigned expression.

“If I know you,” he said softly, “there’s no way you’re going to come down to my room tonight. Not after that.”

She shook her head. “It was a perfect illustration of the problem.”

“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?” He reached for her.

“Not a chance,” she said, eluding his grasp. “That was more effective than a shower of ice.”

“Not for me.” He sighed. “I’m not going to get any sleep, and it’s your fault. I’m going to be tortured by visions of you lying one floor above me in your bed, all soft and warm and sexy.”

“I’m sorry.” She stepped forward and rested her hands on his chest. “I know this isn’t easy, but once we get to Washington—”

“Washington?” He practically shouted the word. Then he pressed his lips tightly together and continued in a tight whisper. “I can’t wait till Washington.”

“Sure, you can. You were patient for months.”

“That was different,” he muttered, slipping his arms around her. “Back then I didn’t know how good it was going to be.”

Her body cried out in agreement, but she refused to listen. “Poor William,” she murmured. She kissed him gently, but he took control and turned the kiss into a soul-melting embrace. She wasn’t sure how she managed it, but somehow she found the discipline to step out of his arms and skewer him with a stern gaze. “Now go.”

“Oh, all right,” he grumbled. “But if you change your mind, you know where I’ll be. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, too frustrated to sleep.” He drew her back into his arms. “Did I mention the rose petals?”

“Yes.” She kissed the tip of his nose. “Get out of here before I have to kick your butt down those stairs. And don’t think I won’t do it.”

He released her, his expression a perfect blend of annoyance and amusement. “I don’t know what possessed me to fall in love with a woman who doesn’t have a shred of respect for me.”

“You knew you needed someone to keep you in line.”

“Hmmph.”

He stalked off without a backward glance. Once he was gone, she shook her head and chuckled softly to herself. Marriage to William might be many things, but it would never be dull.

She had won this skirmish, just barely, but as his frustration grew, so would his powers of persuasion. She needed to strategize, to add fresh weapons to her arsenal. But not tonight. With a huge yawn, she made her way to her bedroom, more than ready for a good night’s sleep.

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1 “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Let It Snow,” performed by John Bayless on Christmas Rhapsody, © 2004, Koch Records. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

2 “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” performed by John Bayless on Christmas Rhapsody, Koch Records, © 2004. Listen to a sample on iTunes.