“Perhaps this would be a good time to discuss the wedding.”

Elizabeth caught herself tugging at the hem of her black skirt, and forced her hands to be still. She refused to let Rose undermine her confidence, and a confident woman wouldn’t be obsessing about whether or not her skirt completely covered her knees. “William and I haven’t had a chance to discuss it yet,” she said, giving her hair what she hoped was a defiant toss.

“Lizzy and I need to talk first, Gran.” William stretched his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. A confident woman also wouldn’t need the reassurance of his touch, but she couldn’t stop herself from shifting closer to him on the sofa.

Her eyes strayed to the Christmas tree in the corner of the family room. Compared to the behemoth in the library, some might have considered it unimpressive, but she preferred its more modest size and its traditional decorations: garlands of popcorn and cranberries, and delicate blown glass ornaments.

“I’m not suggesting that we choose the wedding cake and design the bridesmaid’s dresses today,” Rose said dryly. “But we need to establish some basic parameters. For example, it is customary for the bride’s family to assume responsibility for the wedding.” She paused, her cool gray eyes as unreadable as a page inscribed in invisible ink. “But William is a prominent man, which places unusual demands on the style and scale of the event.”

Elizabeth couldn’t help but admire Rose’s talent for euphemism. “In other words, it needs to be a much bigger event than my parents can afford.”

“No problem,” William said. “I’m going to pay for everything.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth to protest, but Rose spoke first. “I wasn’t referring solely to the cost. There are other considerations. For example, it would be best if the wedding took place in New York.”

At least Rose’s tone gave it the air of a recommendation and not a command. Elizabeth glanced at William, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “That’s fine with me,” she said, “and I doubt my parents will object.” She coughed to cover a giggle at the understatement. Her mother had already anticipated this development. She had been on the verge of calling to reserve St. Patrick’s Cathedral for every Saturday in June until Mr. Bennet had reminded her that neither the Darcys nor the Bennets were Catholic.

“Then that’s settled.” Rose folded her hands in her lap with the air of a woman accustomed to getting her way. “Now, let’s discuss the time frame. As I told William the other day, a date next December would give us sufficient time to prepare. And a Christmas theme for the wedding would be lovely.”

“And as I told you, Gran, we’re not waiting a year.”

“Very well.” Rose made the concession with a suspicious degree of complacency. “I suppose six months might do if we are diligent and well organized, and June is a traditional month for weddings.” She turned her self-assured gaze on William. “That is, if you can spare some of Sonya’s time for the arrangements.”

“Three months,” he said, his chin jutting out. “That’s non-negotiable.”

“Impossible. We would never be able to get the church, much less a proper location for the reception.”

Elizabeth astonished herself by siding with Rose. “Will, I know you don’t want to wait, but three months is a little too soon. I’m not moving here till late February. Wouldn’t it be best if I were here for a few months before the wedding?” She assumed her best respectful-future-granddaughter-in-law expression. “So Mrs. Darcy and I can work together on the arrangements.”

“That’s an excellent point,” Rose replied.

“But, Lizzy—”

She touched William’s arm gently. “It’ll be fine, Will. June isn’t that far away.”

He scowled and huffed a stream of air through his nose, but didn’t comment.

“Excellent.” Rose set her coffee cup aside. “Before Elizabeth returns to New York, the three of us should meet with the rector at St. Bartholomew’s to select some possible dates. Then Sonya can begin investigating options for the reception. We’re starting late, so our choices may be limited, but I’ll have her start with the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza.”

Elizabeth envisioned Rose as a train departing the station, gliding slowly past the platform at first but gathering relentless speed, until it would would flatten anything standing in its way. “And William needs to check his performing calendar.”

“You mean I get some say in the proceedings?” he grumbled, folding his arms over his chest.

“Not much.” Elizabeth grinned and patted his knee. “Don’t you know that the groom’s only official responsibility is to show up for the wedding, on time and appropriately dressed? Oh—and to produce a best man and an usher or two.”

A ghost of a smile flickered across Rose’s face. “I’ll ask Sonya to call the church first thing in the morning and make an appointment.”

A few minutes later, when Elizabeth and William exited the family room, he grabbed her arm and all but dragged her across the second-floor landing to his office. He shut the door with a bang and spun around, skewering her with the laser-like intensity of his eyes. “Are you having second thoughts about marrying me?”

“Of course not. Why would you think that?”

“You sided with Gran about delaying the wedding. And you made me sleep alone last night.”

She planted her hands on her hips and glared at him. “William Darcy, stop acting like a spoiled brat. I would have sided with you about not waiting a year, if you’d bothered to ask my opinion. But three months is too soon, considering that I’m not moving here for another two months. It’s going to be hard enough to keep your grandmother from making every decision herself, but at least if I’m in town for a few months beforehand, I have a fighting chance.”

“Oh.” His forehead twitched, as though trying to dislodge the scowl from his face.

“And the sleeping arrangements last night had nothing to do with how I feel about you. It had to do with respecting your grandmother’s wishes, and with wanting to keep the private details of our relationship … well, private. You, of all people, should understand that.”

He closed his eyes briefly and sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’m just frustrated.”

“I know.” She let her hands drop to her sides. “But I’m not going to let you take it out on me.”

She could feel him willing her to come closer, but she stood unmoving, staring at him. At last he stepped forward and enfolded her in his arms. His sigh this time was deep and slow, and she felt his body relax against hers.

“I didn’t know this was going to be so complicated,” he murmured.

She rested her hands on his chest, its solid warmth radiating through his shirt, and her pulse slowed to a relaxed cadence. “You thought we’d just transplant our life in California out here, and insert it into the middle of your family.”

“I guess I did.”

“You were kidding yourself. It’s going to disrupt everyone’s lives when I move into this house. That’s another reason why I think we shouldn’t get married in a hurry. It’ll be easier if we do things gradually.”

He bent his head and kissed her. “I don’t mean to be impatient. I’m just ready to get on with the rest of my life—of our life.”

“I know.” She reached up and brushed her favorite stray curl off his forehead. “You love all of us, and you want us to be one big, happy family.”

He nodded. “It sounds naïve when you put it that way.”

“Give us a little time, okay?” She drew his head down to hers and kissed him. “And meanwhile, don’t ever forget that I’m crazy about you, you big dumb jerk.”

He chuckled and returned the kiss, drawing her tightly against him. When he spoke again, she could feel his voice rumble in his chest. “I should warn you, I’m not done trying to convince you to sleep with me. I was awake almost the whole night. I kept imagining that I could hear you tossing and turning upstairs, missing me.”

She had done precisely that, but she wasn’t going to hand him any ammunition. She lifted her head from his chest and stared at him, one eyebrow raised. “Now, how could you have heard me, if the soundproofing is as good as you were claiming last night?”

He smirked. “I have special sensory powers where you’re concerned.”

“Well, at least now I know why you’re so grouchy today. Sleep deprivation.”

“I am not grouchy.” He eyed her indignantly.

“You are too. In church this morning you looked like a petulant six-year-old, and you barely said a word all through brunch.”

“I’m tired, not grouchy. In fact, I thought I might take a short nap.” He raised his eyebrows. “Want to join me?”

“Yes, but I’m not going to.” She extracted herself from his arms. “I need to call Jane, and I have some presents to wrap. Go take your nap, and when you wake up, we’ll go for a walk, just the two of us.”

“Good idea.” He paused, mischief glinting in his eyes. “If you won’t nap with me, will you at least tuck me in?”

“How gullible do you think I am? If you maneuvered me that close to your bed, you’d never let me escape.”

He sighed. “It was worth a try. I’ll see you in an hour or so.”

She watched him go, smiling to herself.

 

The relatively balmy December weather continued through Christmas Eve, and for the third day in a row William found himself out for an afternoon stroll. After his much-needed nap on Sunday, he and Elizabeth had explored the park. Today she had proposed a walk down Fifth Avenue. No one else in the world could have enticed him into the tourist areas of Midtown during the holidays, but she had overcome his protests with a determined assault of kisses. And so we find our hero on the streets of Manhattan, braving the crowds in the name of love.

Venturing into tourist territory wasn’t the only thing he had done for love over the past two days. Their steamy good night kisses on Saturday had been followed by even hotter ones on Sunday. He didn’t know why he insisted on driving himself to agonies of frustration, but he couldn’t deny himself the taste of her warm lips or the softness of her body in his arms. And once he held her, he craved more. Much more.

He hadn’t lied to her the day before. Deep in the night, he could sense her presence one floor above him. Her soft, regular breathing, its rhythm burned into his brain, seemed to whisper in his ears. When he inhaled, he thought he detected a hint of her jasmine fragrance on his pillow. To have her so close, and yet not close enough, was excruciating.

fao schwarz entranceElizabeth turned toward the gaily decorated entrance of FAO Schwarz. “Our first stop. I can’t believe it isn’t more crowded.”

“You want to go in here? Why?” William hadn’t been inside a toy store in years, not since Georgiana had outgrown her fascination with Barbie dolls.

giant keyboard used in the movie “Big”“I want you to dance on the giant keyboard.”

One of the store’s signature features was a large keyboard stretching across the floor, played with the feet instead of the hands. “Not a chance. You’re the dancer, not me.”

“Well, then, maybe we could try a duet.”

William snickered at the idea. In response, Elizabeth launched a barrage of soft looks combined with some skillful wheedling. ”You’re not going to convince me,” he said at last. He bent down and spoke low in her ear. ”That is, unless you’ll agree to sleep with me tonight.”

She made a face at him. ”That’s not fair.”

“Yes, it is. All I want for Christmas is you in my bed.”

She scowled at him for a moment and then shook her head. “It’s not that simple.”

“It is to me.”

“I’m sorry,” she said gently.

“So am I.”

They regarded each other solemnly for a moment, and then she shrugged and sighed. ”In that case, onward to Tiffany’s. If drooling over their stuff ever becomes an Olympic sport, I’m all set.”

tiffany's box“I was just there on Saturday picking up your ring,” he said. “They resized it.”

She raised her hand and inspected the ring. “I’ll have to tell Sally. She’s a huge Tiffany’s groupie, though I think she mostly just likes the blue boxes.”

Tiffany's entranceThey continued down Fifth Avenue and followed a thin but steady stream of tourists into Tiffany’s, passing through a garland-festooned archway twinkling with thousands of tiny lights. Elizabeth was almost immediately sucked into the gravitational field of a display case featuring diamond necklaces. William couldn’t help but feel smug as he stood behind her, watching her eyes widen as she studied them. She would be pleased with her Christmas gift.

“Want to get a cup of coffee?” she asked as they exited the store several minutes later. “I’ll even let you buy.”

“How can I possibly refuse?” He followed her through the doors into the gleaming—and, in his opinion, pathetically ostentatious—Trump Tower.

Christmas tree in Trump TowerTen minutes later they sat sipping their coffee at a small table in a corner on the ground floor, beside a massive Christmas tree. Behind the tree, a waterfall cascaded down the pink marble wall, adding a soft splashing sound to the echoing voices of the visitors milling about the five-story atrium.

“Not as quiet as La Lanterna,” she said, smiling at him.

“But convenient.” He shrugged off his coat.

escalator in Trump TowerThe interior of the tower seemed to clamor for attention, much like its namesake. Brass fittings and mirrors shone on the crisscross escalators carrying visitors to the upper levels of the atrium, where they could lean on the glass half-walls and gawk at the lavish scene below.

“Speaking of La Lanterna …” Elizabeth paused.

He pulled his attention away from the lights blazing on the Christmas tree. “Hmm?”

“And our conversation about children …”

His coffee cup froze halfway to his lips. “What?”

She scooted her chair closer to his. “That was the first time we’d ever talked about having children. We’ve never discussed our feelings about it.”

“I just assumed …” He shrugged.

She nodded. “You’ve always taken it for granted that you’d have children some day. The next generation of the Darcys.”

“Are you saying you don’t want children?” He studied her intently, astonished that he could have taken something so fundamental for granted.

“No, I’m not saying that.” She licked her lips. “But I’m not like Jane. She and Charles want a big family, and they want to get started right away. She’s dying to be a mother.”

“And you’re not?”

She hesitated. “I want children, eventually. Not a dozen, but one or two.”

“That’s what I’ve always envisioned. A boy and a girl.”

Her eyes warmed. “I can’t guarantee you one of each, but I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I ask.” He leaned forward and kissed her. “You’re going to be a wonderful mother, Lizzy.”

She smiled but didn’t answer. Silence fell between them again, and they sat back and sipped their coffee. Then she set her cup on the table, a determined expression on her face. “Also, I think we should wait a while. A few years, maybe. We need to work out all the complications of being married before we add children to the mix.”

He hadn’t been thinking of a delay. Quite the contrary; he suspected that his forgetfulness about birth control had been partially rooted in a desire to start his family immediately. “A few years? That long?”

“You said you wanted me to travel with you, right?”

He almost choked on a mouthful of coffee. When he was able to speak, he said, “Of course, but I didn’t think you were willing to consider it.”

“I’ve been doing some thinking. In fact, at lunch on Saturday, Laura—Dr. Church—and I talked about it. She thinks I can find a way to do something in music education, but still go on the road with you. Probably not on every trip, but …” She shrugged. “Maybe half of them?”

“That would be …” His heart seemed to expand, nudging other organs in his chest out of its way. He reached across the table and seized her hands. “Lizzy, this is wonderful. I thought it was a lost cause.”

“So did I, at first. I worked hard for my master’s degree, and I love teaching. I can’t surrender who I am and just follow you around. But maybe it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision.”

“Remind me to send Dr. Church complimentary tickets to my next fifty performances.”

“I wasn’t thinking about how much I’d learn, seeing the life of a concert soloist from the inside and meeting lots of musicians. It should make me a better teacher.” She grinned. “And there’s another good reason to travel with you, too.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“I can fight off all the groupies trying to steal you away from me.”

“Right.” He snorted. “A harem in every port. That’s me.”

“I know it’s true,” she teased. “You can’t fool me. Anyway, I’m going to try to figure something out, job-wise, and Laura’s going to help me. I was going to tell you about it the other day at La Lanterna, but then we got on the subject of your heart condition.”

He leaned over and kissed her. ”I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.”

“But, you see, that’s a reason to delay starting a family. It would be hard to travel with you if we had children right away.”

“Why? We’ll hire an au pair, and we can all travel together.” He had often imagined precisely this scenario.

“I guess you don’t often end up sitting next to discontented toddlers in first class,” she retorted. “I’m not an expert on traveling with kids, but I’ve seen enough to know that it’s a challenge. And once they start school, it introduces a whole new set of complications.”

“But by then I won’t be traveling as much.”

“Why not?”

“I’m cutting back on my future bookings, and I’m going to focus more on recording. It’ll take a few years to work through my current schedule, but after that things will calm down.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “I thought I told you.”

“No.” Her eyes shone. “Thank you, Will.”

“You don’t need to thank me. I did it for both of us.”

“But that’s just it. Sometimes it feels like I’m doing all the compromising. I’m the one moving across the country, and leaving my job, and missing Christmas with my family. So it means a lot when you give up something for us.” She smiled, her eyes soft with gratitude.

They finished their coffee in contented silence, and then decided to move on. As they stood up, two college-aged girls approached, studying William with obvious interest. “Excuse me,” one of them said. “Are you—”

“Yes,” he said. Ordinarily he didn’t welcome fan attention, but today holiday spirit surged through his veins. “I’m William Darcy. Did you want an autograph?”

The girls glanced at each other in obvious confusion. “Um, we just wanted to know if we could have the table,” one explained.

The other nodded. “‘Cause it looks like you’re leaving.”

Elizabeth coughed and pressed her lips tightly together, her eyes dancing. “It’s all yours,” she told them in a strangled voice.

He followed her to the escalator, feeling the flush gradually recede from his face and down his neck.

“Is Richard coming to dinner tonight?” she asked, her lips twitching.

He frowned.”Yes, he is. Why?”

“Oh, no special reason.” She flashed a wicked grin. ”I just might have a funny story to tell him.”

 

Elizabeth lay still as she floated up to consciousness, her mind balanced on the fringes between dreams and reality. The dream faded, leaving behind jumbled impressions of a series of claustrophobic rooms crammed with people and, in the funhouse illogic of the dream world, strewn with dozens of pairs of shoes, most of them jewel-encrusted platform heels.

Nothing could have supplied a more marked contrast to the spacious room that swam into her bleary view. A sharp pain stabbed at her forehead, and she shut her eyes to shield her fragile system from the bright surroundings. Merry Christmas, Lizzy.

egg nogElizabeth rarely drank enough to feel tipsy, much less completely drunk. A glass of wine with dinner, a beer or two at a party, or an oversized margarita at a Mexican restaurant was plenty. But last night after returning from Christmas Eve services, Richard had decided that Mrs. Reynolds’s eggnog needed more zip. In his lexicon, “zip” apparently meant “gallons of bourbon and brandy.” Elizabeth hadn’t realized until too late just how much zip he had added.

She pushed herself upright, massaging her throbbing forehead with careful fingers. Staying in bed wasn’t an option. There were Christmas greetings to exchange and gifts to open. She fervently hoped that none of the morning’s activities would involve food.

Three aspirin tablets and a long shower revived her, though her head still felt about four sizes too large. A breakfast tray awaited her in the sitting room. She couldn’t look at the basket of muffins without shuddering, but she sank into a chair and sipped the coffee, sighing as its warmth oozed through her body.

Footsteps echoed on the marble stairs. A moment later William entered the sitting room, looking disgustingly bright-eyed and, of course, flawlessly groomed. “Merry Christmas, Lizzy.”

She winced as his greeting assaulted her ears. “Same to you.” Her voice sounded rusty and feeble.

“How are you feeling this morning?”

“Not great,” she whispered, shaking her head gingerly. Too much movement, and her brain might explode.

“I was afraid of that,” he said in a softer voice. ”I told you to stick to one glass of Richard’s special eggnog.” He leaned down to kiss the top of her head before joining her on the sofa. How could every hair follicle hurt from a simple kiss?

She sighed and leaned her aching head against his shoulder. “Please tell me I didn’t make a fool of myself in front of Georgie or your grandmother.”

“They went to bed early. And, anyway, you didn’t make a fool of yourself. You were just less … inhibited than usual.”

She could hear the amusement in his voice. “Yes, I remember that much.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah.”

“Thank you for being such a gentleman.”

“It wasn’t easy.” He stroked her hair. “You were very tempting, and you seemed unusually … willing. It wasn’t easy to say good night and leave you alone.”

With a little groan, she burrowed closer, burying her face in his soft v-neck sweater. Their good night kiss at the threshhold of her bedroom had threatened to set the door on fire. “I’m sorry.”

“I kept reminding myself that you’ve never been under the influence of Richard’s eggnog before. If you were sober, I knew you’d have been warding me off with a garlic necklace and a cross if necessary.”

Would I? During her three days at the townhouse it had become increasingly difficult not to sneak into William’s room, or pull him into hers, and give instinct free reign.

“Did you take something for your head?” he asked gently.

She sat up, blinking hard, and nodded. “And the coffee is helping.”

“You should drink lots of water. In fact, let me get you some now.”

He took the spare coffee cup from the tray and disappeared into the bathroom.

“I never expected you to be an expert on hangover cures,” she said when he returned.

He shrugged and handed her the glass. “I’m Richard Fitzwilliam’s cousin.”

She drank the water and then rested her head on his shoulder again. A drowsy peace descended, and at last her headache receded. She heard his voice, as though from a distance. “Are you awake?”

“Sort of,” she mumbled.

“If you feel up to it, we should go downstairs. Gran and Georgie are waiting. I came up here to check on you.”

Returning to bed and sleeping until noon sounded more enticing, but she allowed William to help her to her feet.

“Let’s take the elevator,” he said.

“Bless you.” Descending three flights of steps would involve more jostling than her fragile head could handle.

“And we’ll stop by the kitchen and get you a big glass of water.”

Downstairs in the library, Rose greeted her politely but without warmth, and Georgiana’s greeting was similarly unenthusiastic. Elizabeth thought of the noisy throng around the Christmas tree at home, its crooked trunk and homemade ornaments giving it a homey charm that the impeccably manicured giant in the library could only envy. But at that moment William grasped her hand and gave her a warm, private smile, and her homesickness faded.

He led her to the sofa and then crossed the room to the tree. “Shall I be Santa Claus?”

“Please,” Rose replied.

He removed four packages from beneath the tree and distributed them, one to each person. The small card on Elizabeth’s package read, “Merry Christmas from Rose.” She opened the box to reveal a sweater in a deep shade of cranberry. “Thank you,” she said, stroking the soft cashmere. “It’s beautiful.”

The others opened their gifts, and then William delivered another round of packages. Georgiana had purchased Elizabeth a scarf she had admired during their post-Thanksgiving shopping trip. William, who had attempted to buy her every item she had noticed that day, had probably made that purchase.

He delivered the final group of gifts, placing hers in her hand with a flourish. But her attention was arrested by Rose, who was removing the red foil paper from the package on her lap. Elizabeth swallowed, mentally crossing her fingers.

Rose gazed at the framed photo, at first in confusion and then with dawning comprehension. “This is …” She glanced up at Elizabeth.

“It’s a photo of the Palm Court Room at the Plaza from the 1940s. I found it at an antique store in the Village the other day. After the story you told me about having your bridal shower there, I thought you might like to have it.”

Rose stared at the photo. She opened her mouth, as though preparing to speak, but then closed it again.

Elizabeth couldn’t seem to stop talking. She had worried about the gift ever since buying it. “I know the frame looks a little battered. Supposedly it’s an antique gilt frame, and I know you appreciate antiques, so I thought I’d leave it alone. But if you want a new frame …”

“Thank you,” Rose said quietly, still gazing at the photo. “This is exactly as I remember the Palm Court that day.” She met Elizabeth’s gaze. “This was thoughtful of you.”

Georgiana had been quietly opening her gift from Elizabeth during this exchange. She lifted a small green backpack-style purse from a box, frowning slightly.

“I saw at Thanksgiving that you had a purse a bit like this, but in brown,” Elizabeth explained. “This particular brand is only sold in San Francisco, and the neon-colored ones—green and orange and hot pink—are popular out there right now. I thought maybe you could be the trend-setter here in New York.”

Georgiana’s lips twitched. “Thanks.” She made eye contact with Elizabeth only briefly, and her voice and expression conveyed no emotion. But Elizabeth noticed that Georgiana kept the purse on her lap, examining its thin straps and opening the outside zipper pockets.

“Open yours,” William urged her.

“No, you first.”

With an indulgent smile he tore into the wrappings. “Lizzy,” he breathed softly, studying a framed map.

map of barbados“Uncle Edward helped me find it. Supposedly it’s from the mid-eighteenth century.” It was an antique map of Barbados, hand-colored, with accents in gold. She had spent far more than she could afford, but she didn’t regret a penny of it. “I thought it would go well in your office, with your father’s map collection.”

“Absolutely.” He leaned toward her. “Thank you, cara.”

She turned her face up to his. Their kiss lasted a second or two too long, considering their audience, but in that moment she didn’t care, and apparently neither did he.

“Now, open yours,” he said.

She tilted her head at him. “We agreed that my New Year’s Eve dress would be my Christmas present.”

“You didn’t seriously expect that I wasn’t going to give you anything on Christmas Day.”

Georgiana snorted. “As if. He drove me crazy helping him pick it out.”

Elizabeth removed the wrappings, smiling up at him when she saw the aqua-colored box.

He grinned. “You can give the box to Sally.”

“Not a chance,” she retorted, lifting the lid. She gasped, nearly blinded by the contents.

diamond necklace“You needed some jewelry to wear with your new dress.”

She couldn’t take her eyes off the brilliant diamond-and-platinum necklace. It was even more beautiful than the ones she had ogled at Tiffany’s the day before. Like the necklaces on display at the store, it was entirely impractical for daily use, but she supposed that as William’s wife she would have opportunities to wear it. She lifted it with shaking fingers, only then noticing the matching earrings nestled in a corner of the box. “I … I don’t know what to say.”

“‘Thank you’ is usually a safe bet,” he said gently, his eyes warm with affection. “Would you like to try it on?”

“In a minute.” She touched his cheek, guiding his face to hers for a kiss. “Thank you,” she murmured. “But you know, you’re spoiling me.”

“Get used to it.”

 

Elizabeth wiped a tear from her eye as she trotted down to the third floor. She had just gotten off the phone with Jane, who had managed to organize the Bennets and Phillipses to produce a rousing, if out-of-tune, rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But her tears weren’t a response to their musical crimes. Her father had borrowed the phone from Jane to offer his own greeting. Despite his whimsical tone, when he had confessed to missing her, she had felt a sharp wave of homesickness.

Rockefeller Center at ChristmasChristmas at the Darcy townhouse had been quiet but not unpleasant. She and William had continued their string of afternoon walks, this time to Rockefeller Center, where they admired the soaring Christmas tree and watched skaters stumble around the ice rink. The Fitzwilliams’ late-afternoon arrival had added a welcome burst of energy that carried the family through dinner and into the evening.

Shortly after Robert, Eleanor, and Richard departed for home, Elizabeth had excused herself from the library to place her phone call. She was surprised, when arriving at the third-floor landing, to hear William playing Debussy1 in his sitting room. She poked her head through the doorway with some trepidation; sometimes it annoyed him to be disturbed at the piano. But he gave her a warm smile and stopped playing at once. “How is your family?” he asked.

“Everybody’s fine, but it was kind of chaotic. Kitty and Lydia insisted that they wanted to cook dinner, and I’m sure you can imagine how that turned out.”

“Did it involve a call to the Fire Department?”

“No, but I think it was a close call. In the end, Dad cooked hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. Not your typical Christmas feast, but it sounded like everybody had fun.” She crossed the room and stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders. “I thought you’d still be downstairs.”

“Gran said she was tired. She asked me to say goodnight to you. And Georgie went upstairs right after you did. So I figured I’d come up here and wait for you to get off the phone.” He leaned back against her, emitting a little hum of satisfaction when she bent down to kiss his cheek. “Did you have a good Christmas?” he asked.

She nodded. “Our first Christmas together.”

“I have one more gift for you.”

“Another?”

“Wait here.” He jumped up from the piano bench and left the room.

Elizabeth settled into the new chair positioned near the fireplace, the one he had purchased for her. My chair, in this house. A shiver flew down her spine. The prospect of marrying William didn’t intimidate her, but living in this house was a different matter.

He returned with a white box tied in a fluffy red bow. “It’s really a present for me, not for you,” he remarked cryptically, settling himself in his armchair.

She tussled with the bow, finally subduing it and lifting the box’s lid. The short, low-cut black silk nightgown inside the box explained the speculative glint in his eye and the tiny smirk he couldn’t quite hide.

“It’s beautiful.” She hopped to her feet and perched on the arm of his chair, leaning over to kiss him. “Not exactly something I can wear to the grocery store, though.”

“I should say not. I’m the only one who gets to see you in it.” The glint turned into a full-blown wolfish gleam, and he threaded his arms around her waist. “Will you model it for me?”

“I’d be happy to. As soon as we get to Washington.”

He huffed a loud sigh. “I’m tired of waiting.”

“It’s only a few more days.” She combed her fingers through his hair, patting a curl into place.

He tugged at her waist, disturbing her balance enough to pull her down onto his lap. “I’ve imagined you sitting here with me more times than I can count.”

“Oh?” She squirmed into a sideways position, her legs dangling over the chair arm.

“We’ve done some interesting things in this chair. Just last night I couldn’t sleep, and I came in here, and imagined you—” His hands began to roam. ”Let me show you.”

“Will, I don’t think this is a good—”

William, who was obviously through talking, silenced her words with his mouth. He knew her weaknesses by now and he put the knowledge to use, his kisses crumbling her defenses, his gentle hands exploring, stroking, cajoling. Soon her blouse lay on the floor, and his shirt hung from his shoulders, the buttons undone. Her sluggish brain issued a feeble warning, one her body ignored. But just as his hand slipped behind her to tackle the fasteners on her bra, she heard a creaking noise in the hall.

“What was that?” She sprang upright and shot a frightened glance at the door.

“I didn’t hear anything,” he mumbled, his attention clearly absorbed in hooks and eyes. He popped the final hook open, and her bra straps slipped off her shoulders. With a little sound of satisfaction, he palmed her breast, kneading it and circling the nipple with his thumb.

She ignored the pleasure tingling through her and grabbed his arm. “Will, the door isn’t locked.”

“Then let’s lock it,” he whispered.

She hopped off his lap, her brain clawing its way back into control. “No, we shouldn’t do this. Not here.”

His eyes were like a window into a blazing furnace. “Then come to bed with me, cara. We’ve waited long enough.”

“But I heard a noise in the hall.”

“It’s an old house. It makes noises.” He struggled to his feet and approached her, moving slowly like a predator at night, his eyes smoky with desire. “We’re alone. Everyone else is upstairs asleep. So let’s go to my bedroom and do what we’re both dying to do.” His arms closed around her, and her knees nearly buckled at the rapturous heat of his bare chest pressing against hers. He lowered his head, his lips inches away. “You want this too, Lizzy,” he murmured, the husky note in his voice sending a shiver along her spine. “I know you do.”

She heard the noise again, and it doused her desire like a shower of ice cubes. She wrenched herself from his grasp. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“Lizzy …” He stared at her, his chest heaving, his eyes dark and almost feral. “Don’t do this to me. To us.”

“I’m not doing anything to us. This isn’t about us.” She fastened her bra and snatched her blouse up off the floor.

“It certainly is, when you keep pushing me away.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I know you were on edge when you first got here, but it’s been four days now.”

“Please don’t take this personally. It’s not you. It’s this house. There are too many people.” Too many strangers, some of them lying in wait for the smallest misstep, but she didn’t want to upset him further by saying so.

“But as I’ve already pointed out several times—”

“You don’t need to remind me that they’re upstairs for the night. I know that. And I know there’s almost no chance that they’d hear or see anything. But what if they did?” She grimaced. “The minute I start thinking about it, I can’t think about anything else.”

He glanced down at himself. A muscle twitched in his cheek, and he slowly buttoned his shirt.

She took a step toward him. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t understand. You’re not inhibited like I am when it comes to sex.”

“I thought we were making progress in that area.”

“We are,” she answered quickly, grateful for his use of the word “we.” “But we’ve always had privacy.” She shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry you’re stuck with such a prude.”

His eyes softened, and he stepped forward and drew her into his arms. “You’re not. I guess if I take a step back and view it objectively, it’s better to be extra-careful. But I can’t wait four more days to make love to you.” He kissed her, his lips moving slowly, hungrily, until dizzy heat spiraled through her. “So think of a solution” he whispered, pausing to press a kiss to the base of her throat, “before I lose my mind.”

“I wonder how much privacy we’d have in adjoining rooms at the nuthouse?”

He shook his head, matching her grin. “I’d buy out the entire floor if necessary. Now kiss me goodnight, before they come to fit me for my straitjacket.”

“I should have known a rich guy like you would get a custom-tailored straitjacket,” she murmured, looping her arms around his neck. “I bet they just give me one off the rack.”

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1 “Passepied,” from Suite Bergamasque, by Claude Debussy, performed by Pascal Rogé on Debussy: Piano Works. Decca Music Group, © 1994. Listen to a sample on iTunes.