William couldn’t stop his head from spinning. Moments before, he had held Elizabeth in his arms, his lips inches from hers. Now she stood several feet away, arms crossed over her chest. Caroline wore a brittle smile on her face and a murderous gleam in her eye.
“What do you want, Caroline?” he stammered, fighting his way through mental fog.
“I need to speak to you at once,” she proclaimed, her attempt at a regal bearing spoiled by her petulant tone.
He glared at her. “What is this about?”
“It’s private.” Caroline stared pointedly at Elizabeth.
“I should go back to the party anyway,” Elizabeth said. “Jane might be looking for me.”
“Don’t go,” he said softly. “Caroline can wait.”
“I can do no such thing,” Caroline huffed. “It’s extremely urgent.” She threaded her arm through William’s. “So why don’t you run along, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth’s eyes flared, but she didn’t answer. Instead, she flashed William a tight smile and headed up the path toward the Terrace Room.
He turned to follow her, but Caroline tightened her grip on his arm, digging in with her long red fingernails. “Now, darling.” she said with the air of a mother lecturing a naughty child, “this is a matter of life and death. There will be time later to go back to whatever you were doing, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to.”
“It’s none of your business what I was doing.”
“I have a pretty good idea.” Her supercilious tone infuriated him, but at least she had loosened her grip, allowing him to pull his arm free. “Darling, I know men like to go slumming once in a while, but I thought you had better taste than that.”
William clenched his jaw, the tendons of his neck standing out. He had long tolerated her proprietary behavior with gritted teeth to avoid making things awkward for Charles, but insolence toward Elizabeth was a different matter. Yet an angry response might goad her into doing something worse. He began to count to ten in Italian, as his mother had long ago taught him. He finished counting, muttering under his breath, “Otto … nove … dieci.”
“What did you say? Oh, never mind. I’ve had the most awful news, and I need your help. Jane never signed the prenuptial agreement! I can’t let the wedding go on without it. Darling, you simply must help me decide what to do.”
She had his attention now. He feigned ignorance, hoping to learn more. “Are you sure?”
“I’m positive! I was talking to Jane just now and the subject came up. In fact, she says she never even saw a prenup! Charles must have lied to us. How could he do that to Daddy? To the family? To me!”
She launched herself at him, sobbing, but he knew that Caroline never cried unless it suited her purposes. “Come on,” he said, extricating himself from her arms gently but insistently. “Crying isn’t going to accomplish anything.”
She retrieved a Kleenex from her purse and made a show of dabbing her eyes and nose. “Oh, darling, I don’t know what I’m going to do if you don’t help me.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“Has Charles said anything to you about the prenup?”
He hesitated. “Why would he do that? It has nothing to do with me.”
“Do you think Jane’s telling the truth about never seeing it?”
He shrugged. “You spoke to Jane. Do you think she was lying?”
“No.” She sniffled and paused to deploy the Kleenex again. “But what should I do? Charles risked everything, put my future in jeopardy, for that little ….” She practically spat out those last words, but then, like a curtain falling across a stage, her expression softened and she adopted a pleading tone. “Isn’t this the most irresponsible thing you’ve ever heard?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but if you’re right about what happened, it was … ill-advised.”
“Ill-advised?” she wailed. “It’s a calamity! Charles doesn’t care about Daddy’s company the way I do. But Daddy always gives him preference because he’s a man.”
“Charles is in love, and he expects to be married for the rest of his life. He probably doesn’t think a prenup would serve any purpose.” William found himself in the awkward position of arguing for the point he had argued against earlier that day.
“Then he’s a fool. I doubt anybody goes into a marriage planning for it to fail, but look how many divorces there are these days! And if anything did happen, that horrid Bennet woman would be right there, prodding Jane to grab every penny she could get.”
As little as William wanted to support Caroline over Charles, she was right about that. “Why aren’t you speaking to Charles about this instead of me?”
“He never listens to me. Can’t you talk to him?” She gazed at him with adoration—or at least her best imitation of adoration. It was disgusting. “You’re so wise, and he respects your opinion so very much.”
“All right, I will.” But he wasn’t doing it for her. He needed to warn Charles that his house of cards was about to topple, courtesy of Hurricane Caroline.
“And if he won’t listen to reason, you have to go to Daddy and tell him what you know.”
“Absolutely not.” He stared at her, trying to guess her motives. “In fact, if you’re so concerned, why aren’t you talking to your father right now instead of trying to involve me in this mess?”
“Oh, darling, I just can’t bring myself to do it.” She clutched his arm, sniffling. “Charles is my brother. I could never live with myself if I interfered with his marriage, or caused a permanent rift in his relationship with Daddy.”
“So instead, you want me to betray my best friend.”
“It’s not a betrayal if it’s for his own good, and he’ll forgive you eventually. But if I tell Daddy, Charles will hate me. He’ll think I’m just concerned about my own fortune; he won’t believe that I’m worried about him.”
William didn’t believe it either. “I’ll talk to Charles, but I’m not going to do your dirty work.”
“Darling, what a terrible way to put it! Come on, now, be a good boy and talk to Daddy for me. You’ll be protecting Charles, and the rest of the family too.” She ran a finger slowly along his forearm, gazing at him through her eyelashes. “I’m sure I could find a way to show my gratitude.”
He shook his head and stepped out of her reach. “I said no. I will talk to Charles, but that’s all.”
“Oh, all right,” she sighed melodramatically. “I should be angry with you, but you’re so attractive when you’re stubborn. As long as you talk to Charles—”
“I already said three times that I would.”
“I knew I could depend on you to help me.” She took his face info his hands and kissed him enthusiastically on the lips before he could stop her.
He pulled away in disgust. That was not the kiss he had been hoping for.
When Elizabeth saw William step through the doorway from the courtyard, the trembling she had finally conquered began again. He had almost kissed her. He would have kissed her, had Caroline not stormed across the courtyard and all but flung him over her shoulder in her proprietary zeal. And the kiss would have been no innocent peck on the lips. The flames leaping in his eyes had made that all too clear.
But the memory of his heated expression wasn’t what set her body quivering. The startling fact was this: she had wanted his kiss, had craved it with an intensity that halted her breathing and made her knees wobble. A renegade impulse whispered in her ear, daring her to cross the room and press her mouth to his, past caring about the curious eyes surrounding them.
She needed to get a grip, before the guys with the butterfly nets and straitjackets showed up.
These impulses were dangerous, even self-destructive. William Darcy didn’t kiss insignificant schoolteachers. And if he did, he could have only one thing in mind: the location of the nearest vacant bed. She wrenched her eyes away from him, her jaw tight. But her eyes, heedless of her inner struggle, drifted back in his direction. He met her gaze, and the warmth brimming in his eyes engulfed her.
But then he strode past her, crossing the room to join a group that included Charles, Jane, and the Bingleys. As he passed, she noted smudges of red lipstick on his cheek and mouth. And as Caroline hurried along behind him, Elizabeth saw that her lipstick—her bright red lipstick—was smeared and in need of repair.
Now it all made sense. William hadn’t wanted to kiss her—at least, not only her. Any available woman would do, and the more, the merrier—all the better to feed his oversized ego. What a fool she had been! A few minutes in the moonlight with a lust-crazed pianist and she had lost her mind.
As she stood lecturing herself, the band announced a short break. Charlotte left the dance floor, accompanied by Roger Stonefield, and approached her.
“Hi, Liz!” Charlotte’s voice was a shade too cheerful, almost certainly due to the open bar and its generous supply of Charlotte’s favorite brand of scotch. “Why haven’t you been dancing?”
Elizabeth didn’t answer, too occupied with watching Charles and William heading for the doors to the courtyard.
Charlotte, after skewering Elizabeth with an appraising stare, dispatched Roger to the bar for a fresh round of drinks. As soon as he was gone, she whispered, “Okay, quick, before he comes back, what’s going on? I can tell something is wrong.”
Elizabeth shook her head reluctantly. “It’s a long story. If you’d sent Roger to France for my glass of Chardonnay, there still wouldn’t be enough time.”
Charlotte shrugged. “Roger can hang with his jazz buddies for a while.”
“Nonsense. I don’t want to spoil your evening. It looks like you two are having a good time.”
“You’re not spoiling anything.” Charlotte raised her eyebrows and lowered her voice, “We’ve made plans for later. He’s going to sneak out of the bachelor party as soon as he can and meet me at my place.”
Elizabeth sighed. “How do you do it?”
“How do I do what?”
“Get comfortable with a man so quickly. You just met him a few hours ago, and you’re ready to go to bed with him.”
“I’m not an incurable romantic like you. My requirements in a man are simple. If he’s presentable, interesting, and adventurous in bed, I’m a happy girl. I’ve already confirmed two out of three with Roger, so I might as well go for a hat trick. But never mind that. Start talking.”
Before Elizabeth could begin her story, Roger returned with the drinks. Charlotte drew him aside for a brief conversation, and then led Elizabeth to a table near the doors to the courtyard. Roger sauntered over to a table where the members of Golden Gate Jazz were comfortably ensconced.
“He didn’t mind?” Elizabeth asked.
“I promised I’d make it up to him later.” Charlotte elevated her eyebrows significantly. “He doesn’t mind at all.”
Elizabeth described her time alone with William in the courtyard. She paused for a breath and Charlotte broke in. “Did he kiss you? Please say yes.”
“Just as it was about to happen, Caroline Bingley showed up and started acting like she owned him.”
“That woman is a menace.” Charlotte glowered at Caroline, who was chatting with her parents at the opposite end of the room. “I don’t know how a nice guy like Charles could have such a stone cold bitch for a sister. Maybe we can convince her to go outside and play in traffic, and a nice big bus will come along and flatten her.”
“I can’t believe you left poor William with that leech. But let’s not waste time on her. You were saying that he almost kissed you?”
Elizabeth sighed. “Oh, Char, I’m so confused. He was sincere and sort of shy and … well, sweet. He was that other William I’ve been telling you about. But I’m not so sure, because I think I know why he wanted to kiss me.”
Caroline Bingley passed by with her father in tow. Elizabeth heard Caroline say, “Now, Daddy, I know Charles wants to speak to you, and he’s outside. It’ll just take a minute.”
After father and daughter had passed by, Elizabeth continued. “I think he was just … hungry. For a woman. Any woman. And I was available.”
Charlotte shook her head. “Why is it so hard to accept that he could genuinely like you?”
“We’ve already been through this. He can probably have anyone he wants back in New York, but right now he’s separated from his girlfriend. Or girlfriends, more likely. So he needs a playmate for the weekend. When we were dancing, he was getting … well, kind of worked up.”
“Worked up?” Charlotte smirked. She batted her eyelashes and adopted an exaggerated Southern accent. “Whatevah do you mean?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” Elizabeth retorted.
“Yes, I do, but it’s fun watching you squirm. Sounds like Lydia and I were right about him.”
“Please be serious, for once in your life.”
Charlotte’s wicked grin faded into a more solemn expression. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
“So I guess he was looking for someone he could take upstairs to his hotel room. And I’m so gullible that I bought his poor-little-me routine.”
“Oh, come on. Give the poor man a break.” Charlotte leaned forward in her chair. “Look, I’m not saying that he wouldn’t like to take you to bed. And maybe he was even thinking about it while you were dancing; men sometimes fantasize about women they find attractive. But that doesn’t mean that he was going to do anything about it, aside from kissing you. And it also doesn’t mean that his attraction to you is purely physical.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “But as I was walking back inside, I heard Caroline remark that ‘all men like to go slumming once in a while.’ I guess that’s what I am to him, a little walk on the wild side.”
“Damn it, Liz, knock it off,” Charlotte snapped, folding her arms across her chest. “I’m not going to listen to you put yourself down anymore. Being with you does not constitute slumming for William, or for any man. Cruella de Bingley is just jealous because you don’t have to pull a loaded gun on William to get his attention.”
Elizabeth laughed bitterly. “Neither does she; his face was covered with her lipstick when he came back inside. For all I know, they had a quickie in the bushes. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t bothered to talk to me since he came back inside. Maybe he got what he wanted from her.”
“If her lipstick ended up on him, I’ll bet you any amount you want that it happened without his cooperation. Whenever I’ve seen them together, she’s just about falling off those spike heels trying to keep up while he runs away.”
“So you think I’m being paranoid?”
“Yeah, I do, and it’s not like you. You’d ordinarily see right through a twit like Caroline. And, Liz, here’s something else to consider. Do you honestly believe that the kind, gentle man you talked to in the courtyard would use you—or any woman, for that matter—the way you’re talking about?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “But I don’t know which one is the real William. Maybe the charm was just an act to draw me in. It wouldn’t be the first time I fell for that routine.”
“I know,” Charlotte said with a sad smile. “But think about how many times he’s made you angry, and you’ve known him for less than a day. If he’s a professional womanizer, he needs a new profession!”
Elizabeth laughed. “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all night.”
“Well, listen to this next pearl of wisdom. You should admit—to yourself, I mean—that you’re attracted to him, and that the attraction appears to be mutual. This is a good thing, Liz. You should enjoy it, not try to ward it off like an evil curse.”
“And then what? Once we’re back in New York, you think he and his limo will pull up in front of my rundown apartment building and whisk me off to Le Bernardin for a romantic dinner?”
Before Charlotte could respond, they heard Mr. Bingley’s strident voice from the terrace. “What did you say?” he shouted. Following a muffled response to his question, his angry voice rang out again. “Get her out here this instant!”
Caroline swept through the doors from the courtyard and, with great self-importance, interrupted Jane’s conversation with Mrs. Bingley. As Elizabeth and Charlotte watched, Caroline took Jane’s arm and led her firmly out to the courtyard.
Elizabeth looked at Charlotte in horror. “I need to get out there. I don’t know what’s wrong, but Jane’s going to need someone in her corner if she has to take on Mr. Bingley.”
“Isn’t Charles out there? She won’t be alone.”
Elizabeth jumped to her feet. “Are you coming with me?”
Charlotte shook her head. “Sounds like a family affair. Maybe I’ll see if I can get the band to start playing again so the whole crowd doesn’t end up eavesdropping. And let’s shut the doors to the courtyard; that might help.”
“Good luck out there. It doesn’t sound like a fun place to be.”