William had never heard such ear-splitting silence. It was as though each sound threatened to shatter the room into a million fragments. The smallest sounds—raindrops pelting the windows, a slight creak of his chair when he propped his ankle on his opposite knee, even the regular whisper of his breathing—seemed to thunder in his ears.

He glanced up from the book in his hand; he had been pretending to read it for the past thirty minutes without turning a page. Elizabeth stood at the window across the room, her unyielding back turned to him.

“I suppose you’re not ready to talk yet,” she had remarked in a tight voice as he unlocked the door to their suite less than an hour ago.

He hadn’t been ready, not then, and he had said so. Not with his heart pounding and bile clogging his throat at the memory of George Wickham rising out of the darkness like a malevolent ghost.

“Fine.” She had stalked into the bathroom, returning with her dark hair in glorious disarray over her shoulders, a plush white hotel bathrobe belted around her waist. They had not spoken since.

He ought to have been calmer by now, better able to analyze, to weigh options, to assess risks. But the silence seemed to shove at him from all sides, compressing him deeper inside himself.

Why was she angry with him? It made no sense. He hadn’t stood alone on a shadowy terrace with her worst enemy. He hadn’t danced with another woman, particularly not one intent on raining down misery on her family. He hadn’t exposed her vulnerable sister to a treacherous man, one possessing combustible secrets.

Elizabeth hadn’t realized Wickham’s connection to the Darcys until minutes before William had found them together on the terrace. She had made this clear, speaking mostly to Rose, on the way back to the hotel. But why had she been out there with Wickham in the first place, regardless of his identity? It was a question William would not ask her. As his fiancée, she deserved his trust, however questionable her behavior. He nodded to himself, impressed with his generosity and his clear-headed thinking.

But she seemed determined to snatch this hard-won high ground from his grasp. If she expected him to placate her, she was destined for disappointment. He would not apologize when he had done nothing wrong. He could be magnanimous and forgive her, but he would not grovel.

He closed his book with a loud thump and flinched, but the room didn’t explode, nor did Elizabeth move. Leaning forward, he buried his head in his hands. He longed to feel smooth piano keys beneath his fingers, to immerse himself in plaintive melodies. But the suite had no piano, and the baby grand in the hotel lounge sat in the middle of a festive New Year’s Eve celebration.

“This is ridiculous.”

His head snapped up. She had turned to face him, her expression hidden in shadows. He waited for her to continue.

“Look, I know you need time to process things, but it’s crazy for us to spend the night prowling around here, not talking.”

“I agree.” He leaned back in his chair.

She crossed the room, stopping only a few feet from his chair. “Good. Then you can start by explaining why you’re mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

She huffed air through her nostrils and her eyes narrowed. “I’m not stupid, William. Obviously you’re upset with me. Why else would you have treated me like I was poisonous at the Kennedy Center? You managed to be polite enough to everyone else.”

He grimaced and gusted a deep sigh before he answered. So that was the problem. “I admit, I could have handled myself better.”

She let out a quick, harsh laugh. “You think?”

“But you have to understand—”

“What I understand is that I deserved better from you.”

“Seeing Wickham was a terrible shock.”

“Why did that translate into treating me like the enemy?”

“Because you were consorting with the enemy.” The words popped out, surprising him. Perhaps he hadn’t forgiven her as completely as he thought.

Her eyes flared. “What did you say?”

“Never mind,” he stammered, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Too late,” she snapped. “Do you blame me for introducing Georgie to Wickham?”

“No. You didn’t know who he was.”

“That’s right. When you talked about him, you never mentioned his name. Until he said he knew your mother, I didn’t suspect a thing. How was I to guess that he was her …” She frowned and bit her lip, continuing in a subdued tone. “That he had a history with the family.”

“As I said, it isn’t your fault that they met.”

“Then what is my fault?”

All right. If she wanted to know, he would tell her. “I can’t help but wonder why you spent so much time with him.”

“Is that what this is about?” She planted her hands on her hips. “You’re actually going to sit there and tell me that I can’t talk to another man at a party?”

William rose to his feet, claiming the height advantage. “You did more than just talk.” He was fast discovering that he wasn’t particularly magnanimous after all. “You danced with him, and the way I hear it, more than a little flirting was involved.”

“Stop right there.” Her expression was so fierce that he took an involuntary step backward, almost falling into the chair behind him. “Who told you that? Georgie, I’ll bet.”

Not only that, but Georgiana had led him to the terrace, suggesting that Elizabeth might be out there with her dance partner. “It doesn’t matter,” he grumbled.

“It most certainly does.” Her nostrils flared. “I’ve told you more than once that she’s trying to cause trouble between us. Besides, don’t I deserve a little trust?”

He felt the ground shifting beneath his feet, and he struggled for a firmer foothold. “You were alone with him on the terrace.”

“We weren’t alone. And besides, I went out there looking for you, after I found out who he was.”

So much for finding more solid ground. He pressed his lips together.

She heaved a loud sigh. “Look,” she said in a calmer tone, “I know that it’s sort of a twisted compliment that you’re jealous. But it also suggests that you don’t trust me. That’s the part I don’t like.”

“It’s not you. It’s him. You have no idea how cunning and deceitful he is.”

She studied him for a moment. “Are you afraid I took the things he said about you seriously? Kind of like you did when Georgie accused me of flirting?”

“That’s different,” he retorted, lifting his chin.

“Not really. Wickham wants to hurt you, and Georgie—“ Her eyes flicked upward and she shrugged. “Well, she may not actually want to hurt me, but she wouldn’t shed any tears if I vanished, never to be seen again.”

William tried to reject the notion that Georgiana would intentionally interfere with his love life, but then he remembered his own feelings when Wickham had begun to absorb so much of his mother’s attention. Although William had never done anything overt to discredit Wickham, he had sometimes sought to curtail their time alone by seeking help he didn’t need with his homework, or asking his mother to critique his interpretation of a newly-learned Chopin nocturne.

“Now,” Elizabeth continued, “as to why I was on the terrace with Wickham, he followed me there after I left him on the dance floor.” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I danced with him. One dance, or one and a half, I guess, to big band music.”

“What did he do to you to make you leave him on the dance floor?” William asked, his voice tight with fury. If Wickham had made a pass at Elizabeth …

“Nothing like you’re thinking,” she replied, and for a moment her voice was gentle. “He behaved perfectly when it came to the actual dancing. But he said some nasty things about you, and I got angry and stormed off.”

William’s jaw tightened. He had expected Wickham to speak out against him, but that didn’t make the news welcome. Then he envisioned the fire leaping from Elizabeth’s eyes as she yanked out of Wickham’s grasp, and he couldn’t help but smile. “He didn’t know who he was dealing with.”

“No, he didn’t.” Their eyes met, and a reluctant smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “I love you, Will. Right this minute I’m not sure why, but I do. Have a little faith in me, okay?”

“Okay.” He reached for her hand.

“No,” she said, stepping back. “I’m not ready to kiss and make up yet.”

“Fair enough. Just say when.”

“I want to make sure I understand why you were so rude to me at the party, after you found me on the terrace. Was it because I was out there with Wickham? Or because I was out there with a man—any man?”

“Mostly because it was Wickham. I do trust you, Lizzy, but I saw you with him and—” He shuddered. “It was my worst nightmare. He destroys everything he touches.”

She twisted the belt of her bathrobe around one hand. Her diamond ring flashed on her finger, picking up the light from the lamp beside him. “He really did a number on you, didn’t he? More than you’ve told me.”

“It’s mostly what he did—and tried to do—to my mother.”

“Which would be even worse, because you’re so protective of the women in your life.” She sighed. “But why did you push me away? I know you couldn’t talk about it right then, but I could have held your hand, or just stood by you and let you know you weren’t alone.”

He sighed. “I suppose I blamed you for being with him. I know it isn’t logical, but there you were, with the person I hate most in the world.”

She glanced at the floor, and when she looked up she was pale. “It was as if I’d gone out there and found you chatting with Michael.”

“I guess so.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that.” She nodded. “I think I might have reacted the same way. At first, anyway.”

“But if it had been Michael, and I’d known who he was, you wouldn’t have found us chatting. You would have found me dangling him over the terrace railing by one leg.”

She giggled, and a hint of color returned to her face. “When.”

“What?”

She quirked an eyebrow at him. “When,” she repeated, with exaggerated enunciation.

“Oh!” Grinning, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. “It’s about time.” He bent down and kissed her gently.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly, her hands smoothing the front of his tuxedo shirt. “I never meant to bring George Wickham back into your life.”

“I know.” He kissed her again. “It’s not your fault, cara.” This time he meant it.

“Maybe it is, a little. If I’d refused to talk to him at the rehearsal, none of this would have happened. I mentioned my fiancé right away, so he’d know that flirting wasn’t going to get him anywhere, but I could have done more to discourage him.”

“He’s a master manipulator. If he wanted to talk to you, he was going to find a way. He may have already known who you were. The guessing game about your fiancé may have been a ruse to fool you.”

“I don’t think so. He seemed genuinely surprised when he figured it out. And then he followed me onto the terrace to beg me not to blow his cover. I think if we leave him alone, he’ll just go away.”

He tightened his arms around her and she melted against him, resting her head on his shoulder. With a world-weary sigh, he closed his eyes and let the tension drain from his body. Silence filled the room again, but this time it enveloped him like a warm blanket.

Then a distinctive gurgle emanated from the vicinity of his stomach. Elizabeth giggled and glanced down. “I guess I don’t need to ask if you’re hungry.”

He grinned ruefully. “I didn’t eat much dinner.” He usually ate sparingly before performing.

She extricated herself from his arms, crossed the room, and retrieved a binder from the night table drawer. “Thank goodness for round-the-clock room service.”

After their food arrived, they lounged on the bed, nibbling snacks from the room service cart. Elizabeth described meeting George Wickham that afternoon at the rehearsal and explained her desire to correct the unknown man’s bad opinion of William.

“So, where was I?” she asked, popping a french fry into her mouth.

“You were deciding how best to defend my honor, while you danced with him.” He over-enunciated the last five words.

She scowled as she swallowed her food. “Seriously, when we go to fund-raisers and other parties, won’t I be expected to circulate? I can’t just stand there clutching your arm all evening.”

“That’s true,” he said with a sigh.

“But I take it you’d prefer that I not dance with anybody under the age of sixty?”

“Are you kidding?” He smirked. “Sometimes the older men are the worst.”

“Yeah, but everyone will know that I’m so madly in love with my husband that there’s no point in even trying.” She leaned over and kissed him.

“Now that’s what I like to hear,” he drawled. “Would you like some more wine?”

“Yes, please. An excellent choice, by the way. I like the way it enhances the natural earthiness of the potatoes.”

He refilled their glasses and sipped his wine, grinning. Elizabeth had been teasing him about ordering wine with their decidedly un-gourmet snacks.

“Anyway,” she continued, “I defended you, and he started teasing me about being one of your panting fan girls. His remarks about you kept getting worse, and finally I’d had enough. Just when I decided to leave him on the dance floor, he figured out that you were my mysterious fiancé.”

“And that’s when you went out to the terrace?”

“Right. I figured you might have gone out there to escape the noise and crowds inside. He followed me out there, and I told him to get lost. He begged me not to tell you that I’d seen him, and he asked for a chance to explain why.”

“Was that when you figured out that he was the man I’d told you about?”

“Not at first. But he said he had a history with the family, and I ought to know about it.” She sighed. “I guess I should have walked away, but I was curious. Not that I was going to believe everything he said, but I decided to listen.”

William didn’t like this, but he could understand her curiosity.

“He started telling me about meeting your mother through the foundation, and that’s when I realized who he was.” She shook her head. “He’s terribly jealous of you, partly because you got the career he wanted and thought he deserved.”

William snorted. “That’s hogwash. I heard him play a few times back then. Not much talent, and not enough dedication to make it as a soloist.”

“He seemed to be interested mostly in the adulation of the crowd. He was also jealous because your mother loved you so much, though he claimed that you were the jealous one.”

“There’s some truth in that. We had one thing in common, a deep mutual dislike.”

“You had something else in common. You both loved your mother.”

“Did he tell you that?” William clenched his jaw. “That bastard never loved anyone but himself. Did he tell you that he stole money from the foundation?”

“He swore that he was innocent, that you invented the whole thing to discredit him. But I know you wouldn’t do that.”

Long-suppressed rage welled up, setting William’s heart pounding and pulling his muscles as tight as piano strings. “He embezzled thousands of dollars from the foundation while Mamma was alive, and he would have gone on doing it after she died if Gran hadn’t fired him. And when our accountant discovered the evidence, Wickham blackmailed me to keep it quiet.”

Her eyes widened in horror. “He blackmailed you?”

“He told me that if we filed charges, he’d write a tell-all book about his affair with Mamma. He threatened to include plenty of intimate details, most of which I’m sure he would have invented.”

“I knew there was more to the story, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. Was that the last time you saw him, until tonight?”

William nodded.

“No wonder you were so upset. I’m so sorry. If I’d had any idea…” She took his hand and they sat in silence. The rain had turned to ice, tapping against the window in a chaotic rhythm.

“You’re the only person I’ve ever told about the blackmail attempt,” he said after a long pause.

“Your grandmother doesn’t know?”

“I told her that if we pressed charges, the bad publicity over the embezzlement would hurt the foundation. I told the board the same thing, and they agreed. I replaced the stolen funds out of my private account, and I treated it as a painful but important lesson. Over the years it’s gotten increasingly difficult to keep up with the work, but I’ve never even considered hiring an executive director because there’s no one I trust enough.”

“But there are plenty of honest people involved in non-profit work. Wickham was just a bad choice.”

He shook his head. “I can’t take the risk. The foundation is my mother’s legacy.”

“And when this happened, you couldn’t confide in anyone? You just bottled it up inside?”

“There was no one I could tell. But it feels good to share it with you.”

They fell silent again, picking at the remains of their late-night feast, and William began to relax. Elizabeth had been right earlier; Wickham had no reason to want their paths to continue to cross. As for Georgiana, the story of the embezzlement, without mention of the blackmail attempt, should serve to quell her curiosity. Wickham would retreat into the past again, where he belonged.

When they were done eating, he wheeled the cart out into the hall. Elizabeth watched him return, a thoughtful frown on her face. “This whole thing with the blackmail attempt still amazes me,” she said. “He seemed polite and friendly—a little full of himself, maybe, but that’s not unusual. Just ask Aunt Maddie. She thought he was charming. Everything seemed normal, except for the nasty things he said about you.”

“Which you certainly took in stride,” William remarked wryly, “right up to the point where you walked off the dance floor.”

“At first I just figured you’d done something to tick off the backstage workers.” She shrugged and wrinkled her nose.

He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at her. “You say that as though it’s an everyday occurrence.”

“Maybe not everyday, but it wouldn’t exactly shock me to hear that you got high-handed with the help.”

“So this is your true opinion of me? How flattering.” He said the words in a joking tone, but underneath he felt a sting.

She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “I’m crazy about you, but you can be difficult sometimes, and I think you know it. I’ll never forget the way you bossed Bill Collins around last fall when your studio at the conservatory wasn’t arranged to your precise specifications.”

“But that was because I didn’t like how friendly he was with you.”

“So you were jealous! I knew it!” She bounced slightly, setting off a brief seismic wave in the mattress.

He shrugged. “Maybe I was. But why are you so happy about it? I thought you didn’t like for me to get jealous.”

She kissed him again, this time on the mouth. “Back then it was different. We were just getting started.”

“All these rules,” he grumbled. “How is a guy supposed to keep them straight?”

“You poor thing,” she murmured in sham sympathy. She slid her hand over his bare chest between the lapels of his robe—and yanked at a wisp of chest hair.

“Ouch!” he yelped, pulling away. “So we’re playing rough?” He grabbed her by the waist and tickled her. Shrieking, she tried to escape, but he rolled on top of her and grabbed her hands to prevent further attacks. Once she would have recoiled in fear, but now her eyes flashed up at him with good-humored challenge.

He lifted his weight off her and reached out to smooth her hair. Her lips were slightly parted and seemed to demand to be kissed. But as he lowered his head, she rolled sideways, throwing him off balance. And then she pounced. He offered token resistance, but soon allowed her to pin him to the mattress.

She loomed over him, her breathing rapid, her hair cascading down around her face. Her robe had slipped open during their wrestling match, and his eyes locked on the delicious curves framed by the robe’s lapels. A shudder rippled through him, and his skin prickled with electric heat.

“Well,” he rumbled, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, “now that you have me, what are you going to do with me?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” she purred as her hands slipped inside his robe.

 

Elizabeth squinted at the clock. She performed as quick a mental calculation as her languid state would allow, and then sat up in bed.

“Where are you going?” William reached out, his arms circling her and drawing her back against his body.

“I’ll be right back. I want to call Jane.” Elizabeth evaded his grasp and crawled out of bed. She wrapped herself in her discarded robe and crossed the room to fetch her purse.

“At this hour?”

“It’s almost midnight in California, and she’s at that party at the Clift Hotel. I want to wish her a happy New Year.” She pulled her phone from her purse and gave him a speculative look. “You know,” she said softly, “this is a chance for you to improve on your performance earlier.”

He struggled into a half-upright position, resting on his elbows. “I beg your pardon?”

His air of injured dignity might have earned her pity had it not been so comical. “Not that performance,” she replied, laughing softly. She traced an abstract design on his chest with one finger.

He exhaled loudly. “You had me worried for a minute.” His face clouded over again. “In that case, you must be talking about the Gershwin.”

“Of course not! You were the best performer all night, which is why you got that long, loud standing ovation.” She grinned and ruffled his hair. “I can’t even believe that you tricked me into feeding the ego twice inside of thirty seconds. Enough of that, until morning at least.”

He frowned, but she saw a hint of a smile on his twitching lips. “So my lovemaking and my music are fine. In that case, what were you talking about?”

“The pathetic way you wished me a happy New Year back at the party.”

“Oh. That.” He flopped onto his back, his expression that of a small boy who had just been sent to bed without his dinner. The boyish impression was magnified when he pulled the covers up around his neck.

“I was thinking that we could count down to midnight again on California time, and you could redeem yourself.”

“As long as it happens soon,” he mumbled. “I’m not going to be awake for much longer.”

“You really know how to sweep a girl back onto her feet.” Elizabeth eyed the clock on the night table. “Is sixty seconds soon enough?”

His eyes fluttered open, and he hauled himself upright. “I think I can manage that, if it means I don’t have to hear any more about my behavior at the party.”

“It’s a deal.”

He grinned at her and shook his head ruefully. Then his smile softened. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“So am I.”

“If I were alone, I’d be sitting in that chair worrying about Wickham. I’d probably have been awake all night, turning it over in my mind.” He cupped her cheek and leaned forward. “That’s what you do for me, cara.”

It was her favorite sort of kiss: leisurely, gentle, almost teasing. It shimmered with quiet contentment, warming a degree at a time until they sighed in blissful unison. His hands cradled her face and then combed gently through her hair, worshipping each curl in its turn.

Finally she raised her head, smiled into his sleepy eyes, and then glanced at the clock. “We missed the countdown. It’s 12:01 in California.”

“We didn’t miss anything.” He kissed her again and burrowed under the covers, his eyelids already drifting shut. “Take off that robe and come to bed.”

She tiptoed into the bathroom with her phone. Jane didn’t answer, so Elizabeth left a message. Only then did she notice that she had a message of her own. She listened to it and returned to the bedroom a few minutes later, slipping under the covers and snuggling against William. With a sleepy groan, he spooned behind her and draped an arm around her waist.

“Will, are you awake?” she whispered. “You’ll never guess who showed up at the Clift Hotel tonight.”

His only response was a soft grunt. She smiled to herself. Jane’s news could wait until morning.

 

Charlotte Lucas couldn’t remember the last time she had stayed home on New Year’s Eve.

It wasn’t for lack of options; she’d had three parties to choose from. Jane and Charles had invited her to the swanky bash at the Clift Hotel. Greg and Don, her next-door neighbors, had issued an invitation as well. Judging from the noise, they had attracted a jovial crowd to their apartment. She could also have joined a group of her Berkeley friends at a fellow grad student’s apartment a few blocks away.

A bottle of Johnny Walker Black, her planned donation to the third party’s bar, had languished on the kitchen counter all evening, until at 11:45 she had finally liberated it from its brown paper bag. “How about if you and I ring in the New Year together, sweetheart?” she had suggested in a cheesy imitation of Humphrey Bogart.

Drinking alone on New Year’s Eve. It didn’t get much more pathetic than that. And Johnny Walker Black wasn’t even her favorite anymore; her palate for scotch had become more discriminating over the past few months. Not that this had stopped her from draining her glass. After all, antisocial party poopers can’t be choosers.

Midnight had come and gone perhaps ten minutes before. She had heard the cheers and the raucous chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” coming from next door, and had lifted her glass in a solitary toast.

She poured a second helping of scotch and saluted the bottle. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Then she wandered into the living room and stood in front of her bookcase, idly scanning the spines of her books. She pulled an art book off the top shelf and flipped to her favorite page. Michelangelo’s David. Male, decorative, and unable to speak. Doesn’t get much better than that.

When she returned the book to its place, she knocked a paperback to the floor. Baseball and Philosophy, a misfit among her books on art, architecture, and design. She rescued it and carried it to the sofa, opening to a dog-eared page toward the back of the book marking the chapter, “The Ethics of the Intentional Walk.”

But she couldn’t concentrate, not with “YMCA” by the Village People vibrating through the walls with seismic force. The floors shook as well from the stomping of dozens of feet, and a chorus of inebriated voices bawled, “YMCA! It’s fun to stay at the YMCA!”

Charlotte shut the book with a sardonic shake of her head. Apparently she was the only person in the state of California who wasn’t celebrating—or, at least, the only one under the age of sixty-five. All she needed was a crocheted shawl around her shoulders and seven or eight cats at her feet. What the hell is wrong with me?

She didn’t like the image that swam into her thoughts—a male form, perhaps not quite up to Michelangelo’s standards for models, but plenty decorative all the same, and finished off with a pair of eyes permanently etched with a mocking expression.

No. Richard had nothing to do with this. Elizabeth kept nagging about him, trying to turn a casual fling into something more. Recently she had even gotten Jane into the act. No wonder he came to mind so readily. And the baseball book was another reminder. He had given it to her in Phoenix, the weekend of the World Series. “It’s one of my favorite books,” he had explained. “I want you to read it so we can discuss it.”

Okay, I admit it. I miss him. Beneath his cynical banter and love of innuendo, she had discovered a brilliant, multi-faceted intellect. He could talk about politics, philosophy, sports, and popular culture with equal skill. They liked the same movies, the same restaurants, and even the same scotch, once he had introduced her to his favorites. He had even taken an interest in her research, which was Charlotte’s acid test for men.

And in bed? Free for the first time to be completely herself, with no need to conceal the depth of her appetites, she had wallowed in so much pleasure that it seemed decadent in retrospect. Paradoxically, she hated him for it. Together they had set the bar so high that no other man could ever measure up.

Within a few days of meeting him, she had realized a dizzying truth: here was a man she could learn to love. She had always been grateful for her immunity to love, imagining herself inoculated against it at birth by some divine physician. As she had watched one friend after another descend into the lunacy that love visits on its victims, she had nodded with smug satisfaction. It was unsettling to find that, like Achilles, she had a dangerous chink of vulnerability.

But despite this newfound weakness, she knew she wasn’t cut out for marriage and settling down and all the other things her friends seemed to want. And even if she were, she pitied the woman who tried to domesticate Richard Fitzwilliam.

Elizabeth didn’t understand. She had sent the message through Jane that Richard “had feelings” for Charlotte. What an idiotic phrase! Everyone had feelings. Besides, Charlotte already knew that Richard liked her, probably more than was good for either of them. Why else would he have invited her to spend New Year’s Eve in Washington with his parents in attendance?

But liking and loving aren’t the same thing. Elizabeth, wrapped in her romantic dream, couldn’t see that. Richard would never love just one woman; in a sense he loved all women equally. Above all, he wanted to surround himself with as many women as possible at all times.

Charlotte’s own philosophy, until now, hadn’t been much different. All men in moderation. But she feared that now, given her new-found vulnerability, she might gradually turn into a cliché: the delusional woman in love with the bachelor playboy. Like tonight. He’s not home alone with a bottle of scotch, listening to other people dance to a campy disco song. He’s got a woman on each arm, and another on his—

She jumped to her feet and stalked into her bedroom. Ten minutes later, she emerged wearing her tightest jeans, a silky white blouse, and her favorite chunky silver earrings. It was too late for the Clift Hotel, but she could join the party next door. If necessary, she would even sing along with “Macho Man,” which was bound to roll to the top of the playlist soon. Better that than to sit home, swilling scotch and self-pity. She yanked her apartment door open, stepped into the hall, and froze.

Richard stood in the hallway with her next-door neighbor. Greg, who was swaying as though buffeted by irregular gusts of wind, in spite of a tight grip on the doorframe.

“I thought I knew her apartment number,” Richard was saying, “but once I got up here I couldn’t be sure.”

“Richard?”

He turned to face her, and his trademark mocking smile curled his lips. “Never mind. Sorry to bother you.”

“No bother.” Greg raised a blue plastic cup in an unsteady salute. “Stop by the party later if you want.”

Richard strode toward her, stopping just inches away. “Hello there.”

“What are you doing here?”

“You know,” he said, reaching up to rub the back of his neck, “I’m not entirely sure.” He glanced at her apartment door. “May I come in?”

She nodded and led the way into her living room. “Do you want a drink?”

“You’re asking me that question?”

“I’m afraid this isn’t up to your standards,” she remarked as she handed him a glass of scotch. Her own, still half-full, sat on the coffee table.

“Beggars, choosers, you know the saying.” He accepted the glass but otherwise stood still, watching her.

“Why don’t you take off your coat and sit down,” she suggested, watching him with keen interest and more than a little surprise. The Richard Fitzwilliam she knew didn’t wait for permission to make himself at home.

“Right. Thanks.” He draped his coat over a chair and dropped onto the sofa. After a moment’s hesitation, she joined him.

They sipped their drinks, darting awkward glances at each other. Charlotte slid her hand along her futon sofa’s black and white slipcover. The futon was her oldest piece of furniture, and her favorite. But it was time for some new decorative pillows. Maybe red this time. Or gold, which might go better with the drapes.

She had no idea why she had chosen this moment to mentally redecorate her apartment.

Richard cleared his throat. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this quiet in my life.”

That made two of them. “I didn’t know you were going to be in town for New Year’s.”

“Neither did I.”

“I don’t understand.”

He licked his lips and studied his glass of scotch. “This must be what Will feels like sometimes. Poor bastard.” He drained his glass in two gulps and set it on the table. “As of six o’clock tonight I was at one of my favorite spots in Soho, getting an early start celebrating the new year.”

“And you were seized by a sudden urge to eat bad airline food?”

“You know, I’m trying to be moderately serious here.”

Richard, being serious? His behavior couldn’t have surprised her more had he pulled a sombrero from his pocket and done the Mexican Hat Dance in her living room. “Okay, go ahead.”

“I was sitting there, scanning the crowd for prospects, and it struck me that I’d sat at that exact table the year before. Another year older, and everything was exactly the same.”

“I had the impression that you were happy with yourself. And in that case, isn’t ‘exactly the same’ a good thing?”

“My self-satisfaction hasn’t been much more than skin deep lately. I’m becoming acutely aware of my mortality. Isn’t it sad that if I died tomorrow, the most appropriate place to bury me would be under that table in Soho?”

“Okay, so is this some kind of bizarre mid-life crisis? Or are you here looking for a better gravesite?”

“You’re not making this any easier.”

“Sorry.” But she wasn’t sorry. She didn’t intend to make anything easier for him. He had apparently crossed the country in the grip an early New Year’s resolution, one made on impulse and destined to be abandoned just as quickly.

He stared into his glass, frowning as though it contained tea leaves he could read. True to Charlotte’s prediction, “Macho Man” vibrated through the walls from next door, greeted by muffled shouts and the thumping of dozens of feet. “How can you hear yourself think with that going on?” Richard growled.

“Think of it as your theme music.”

He stared at her for a moment and then threw back his head and laughed. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here.”

“Enough of the sphinx routine,” Charlotte snapped. “You’re an intelligent man, far too intelligent to jump on a plane without knowing why. And I know it wasn’t just to hear my snappy retorts. So why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”

“Fair enough.” He stared into his glass again, focusing on it for so long that she wondered if he had nodded off with his eyes open. Then, at last, he began to speak, his eyes still boring into the amber liquid. “When I came out here last October, it wasn’t because Will needed me. It was because I had to get away.”

“From?”

“A lot of things. But the last straw was when a girl I’d spent an evening with several months before called to announce that I was about to become a father.”

She hadn’t expected this. “You have a child?”

“It turned out to be someone else’s, thank God. But I wasn’t sure back then. The timing was right, and even though I’m careful, accidents happen.”

“Has this ever happened to you before?”

“Once—also a false alarm—but that was a long time ago, during my misspent youth.”

Charlotte stifled several possible retorts. She had asked him to get to the point, and owed it to him not to fling obstacles in his path.

“When it happened this time,” he continued, “it got me thinking about birth and death and what the hell I was doing with my life. Here I was, thirty-five years old and still acting like a sophomore at Yale, sleeping through my morning classes because I’d been out so late the night before.”

“A tad undignified.”

He snorted softly. “Not to mention deadly dull. The problem with screwing girls in their early twenties for a decade and a half is that you get older, but they don’t. You start collecting gray hairs in embarrassing places and wrinkles you don’t want. Next thing you know, you feel like their lecherous Uncle Ernie.”

She snickered. “I doubt they think of you that way.”

“I suppose not. But in addition to the wrinkles, over the years you gain experience. And maybe even a shred or two of wisdom, if you pay attention to what’s happening around you. The girls just aren’t there yet. There have been too many evenings lately when I was almost willing to make a vow of celibacy in return for an evening of intelligent adult conversation.” He smirked. “Almost.”

“So you were hoping that you could have it both ways in San Francisco?”

“I figured I needed to break my old habits and form some new ones, and a temporary change of venue might help. Plus, I had that paternity thing hanging over my head. So I tagged along with Will and Sonya.”

Charlotte tried to remember what Elizabeth had said about him back then. “You mostly hung around with Jane at first, right?”

“Right. It was like going from Britney Spears to Grace Kelly. The most remarkable thing about Jane is that although she’s about as goody-two-shoes as it gets, she’s not dull. We couldn’t have been more wrong for each other; I like my women with a good-sized wicked streak, and she was hung up on Chuckles. But we were bizarrely compatible as friends. We talked, and talked, and talked, and—” He grimaced. “This is going to sound like bad poetry, but it was like she drained some of the poison from my soul.”

Charlotte suppressed the gagging noises she would ordinarily have made as a commentary. “Did you tell her about the paternity situation?”

“Yeah. She gave me good advice, both as a friend and as an attorney. By the way, Will doesn’t know about the baby scare, and I’d like to keep it that way. The only people I told were Jane and my father. Dad wasn’t exactly a choir boy when he was younger either, so I knew he’d understand.”

“Okay. My lips are hermetically sealed.”

“Then one night we went to hear Lizzy and her band sing. Both Lizzy and Jane had been telling me about a woman they wanted me to meet. I hate blind dates and I usually refuse to participate, but this time I thought, what the hell. Technically speaking, it wasn’t a date. We were going to be in a group, so if I didn’t like the woman, I could ignore her and talk to Jane and Will and Sonya. But then I met her.”

“And you liked the size of her wicked streak?”

He looked her over as though studying a marble statue … or a Playboy centerfold. “Oh, yeah. Everything about her was just the right size.”

She couldn’t help but smile.

“Right from the start, you were something special. I rarely meet a woman who can keep up in the suggestive-banter department. In your case, the question was whether or not I could keep up. You raise banter to an art form, until it doubles as foreplay. By the time we left there that night, you had me so hot that—well, I assume you remember.”

She did. They had barely made it to the penthouse’s foyer before attacking each other like a pair of rabid wolves.

“Which led to a night of the most astonishing sex I’d ever had.”

An image flashed into her mind, so vivid that her insides twisted at the memory. After a first, frantic coupling against the wall in the foyer, they had stumbled to Richard’s bedroom, unable to stop, driven again and again to seek release from the shuddering madness.

“Then during our second or third night together, I noticed something odd. I’m not usually much of a talker in bed. As soon as it’s over, I’m ready to get dressed and go home. But we were doing a lot of talking. Not so much during, but before and after and in between. And the talking was almost as good as the sex. Or is my memory playing tricks on me?”

“No, it’s not.” She met his searching gaze briefly but then looked away. “It was all good.” Damn him.

“Then why aren’t we still doing it?” He gulped down the rest of this drink. “That weekend in Phoenix—I’ve never had a better time. And I don’t just mean when we were in bed, though I’ve never experienced anything to compare with that.”

She sighed loudly. “Same here.”

His scrutiny became even more intense. “Okay, this is the part that mystifies me. We get along great, we have plenty to talk about, and the sex is mind-blowing. So obviously the thing to do is to stay as far apart as possible.”

“You make it sound like I’m avoiding you in the hall between classes. We live on opposite coasts. It’s natural that we’re not going to see much of each other.”

“But you’ve been ducking my phone calls, and you wouldn’t come to Washington with me.”

“That was because—”

He slammed his glass down on the coffee table. “Damn it, Char, I miss you. Tonight in that bar, I realized that yours was the face I was searching for. So I dropped everything and got on an airplane. Don’t give me another load of tired excuses.”

He stared at her, his chest rising and falling rapidly, the cords of his neck standing out in sharp relief. Then, with an inarticulate sound, he stood up and crossed the room to pour another glass of scotch. When he returned to the sofa, he seemed calmer.

“What, exactly, are you trying to say to me?” she asked in a carefully measured voice.

“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”

“Then improvise.”

“Okay. I’ll start with what I’m not saying. Item one: I’m not saying that I love you. Lizzy thinks I do, and so does my mother. But I’ve never said those words to a woman, and I’m not going to say them unless I’m damn sure of my facts.”

“Not a declaration of love. Got it.” She hadn’t expected one. In fact she would have received any such declaration with deep skepticism.

“I’m not pledging my eternal fidelity either. I don’t know if that’s something I can promise to anyone.”

“Understood. I don’t know if I can either.” Yet if she could promise it to anyone, it would be him.

“But I am saying this. We’re good together. So good it’s almost scary.”

She nodded reluctantly. “Like looking in the mirror.”

“Exactly like that.” His hand closed around her arm. “Look, Char, when you started pushing me away, at first I thought you were right. Obviously, anything between us was going to be way too good to just fizzle out. But where could we go, realistically? Neither of us has shown any aptitude for relationships, and a pairing of two losers is doomed from the get-go.”

She didn’t comment. He had neatly summarized her thoughts, leaving her nothing to say. But now, staring at the muscular arm brushing hers, the argument failed to convince her.

“So I went back to my old life.” His smile was strangely sad. “Or I tried to. But I seem to have outgrown it, and that’s your fault. You’re what I want, at least for now. I don’t know how I’ll feel next month or even next week, but I know how I feel right now. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I want from you.”

She nodded, just a slight bobbing of her head. Again it was as though he was extracting the words from her mind.

“So here’s the deal. If you get offered the job at Columbia, take it. Move to New York. Then we can scratch the surface, along with anything else that itches, whenever we feel like it.”

“Are you talking about living together?” She wasn’t ready for anything close to that sort of commitment.

“No.” He shook his head firmly. “You’ll have your place, I’ll have mine, and we’ll get together when we want to. No promises, no restrictions, no strings. If you want to boink a fellow professor—some guy with more hair on his face than on top of his head, who wears Dockers and horn rimmed glasses—feel free. I won’t want to hear about it, but I won’t try to stop you.”

“And if your taste for twenty-something flesh resurfaces?” Undoubtedly it would.

“Then I may end up laying a model or two. Or ten. But don’t worry, you won’t know them. I draw the line at students, even grad students.”

“How reassuring.” She ruthlessly squelched the unpleasant image he had evoked, but had he said anything else, she wouldn’t have believed him. “And if I get offered the job at UCLA instead?”

He shrugged. “I was born in California. I don’t think a little sunshine would kill me.”

“Wait a minute.” Her mind slammed into reverse gear, nearly driving the air from her lungs. “Are you saying you’d move to LA to be with me?”

“Relax.” He grinned at her. “You wouldn’t be responsible for me. Same deal as New York. Separate quarters, no strings attached.”

“How would you work for William if you lived in LA?”

“They have these newfangled gadgets called airplanes and telephones. And maybe you’ve heard of this amazing invention, the Internet.” He snorted. “Then again, Will has barely heard of it, so forget I brought it up.”

“I’m interviewing at Stanford, too.”

He shrugged “Even better. San Francisco is my home town.”

His willingness to relocate, more than anything else, began to convince her of his sincerity. “I’ve missed you,” she said softly.

“Is that a yes?”

She took a deep breath. It might be the biggest mistake of her life, but she couldn’t seem to maintain her wall of resistance. “I’m not entirely sure what I’m agreeing to, but, yes.”

The warmest smile Charlotte had ever seen from him spread across his face. “That’s my girl.” He leaned over and kissed her. It was by no means their first kiss, but it was the first that she would have called affectionate. Then he drew back and looked into her eyes, as though wondering if she approved. This hint of uncertainty from Richard Fitzwilliam, whose photo probably appeared in the dictionary beside the definition of “cocky,” charmed her more than it should have. Yeah, I can learn to love him. God help me.

He stretched his arm around her and pulled her closer. She was too tall to rest her head on his shoulder, as she had sometimes seen Elizabeth and other friends do with their … boyfriends? We’re going to have to come up with another term. Instead she rested a hand on his thigh. “How did you know I’d be home tonight?” she asked.

“I didn’t. I went to the Clift Hotel first. Lizzy had mentioned the party, and I figured you’d be there. But Jane said she hadn’t seen you. She offered to call and find out where you were, but I was afraid you’d vanish if you knew I was on my way. I was planning to camp out on your doorstep for as long as necessary.”

“And if I’d brought a man back here with me?”

“Well, luckily, you didn’t, because tonight I’m not in the mood to share.” He grinned at her. “I suppose I could have beaten him to a pulp and impressed you with my masculinity.”

The noise level next door had begun to drop, though “In the Navy” poured through the walls, continuing the Village People retrospective. She yawned, the late hour extracting its toll. “Did you bring any luggage?” she asked, rising to her feet.

“I didn’t have time to go home and pack.” He stood as well.

“I probably have a toothbrush and a razor you can use. Can’t help you with clothes, though.”

“I won’t need any. Not for a day or two, anyway.” His arms closed around her waist, holding her in a firm grip that felt astonishingly good. “We’ve been talking ever since I got here. And I know I said that the talking was almost as good as the sex, but I think we ought to move on to the thing we do best.”

He pulled her tightly toward him, bringing their bodies into contact from head to toe. A shudder rippled up her spine as she felt herself engulfed in waves of raw masculine power.

“You’re right,” she said, her voice like the husky growl of a tigress. “We’ve talked enough for one night.” Without another word, she took his hand and led him into her bedroom, shutting the door behind them.