Elizabeth unlocked her apartment door, gasping for breath. The elevator was broken again, and it had been a long climb to the sixth floor. She hefted her bulging backpack off her shoulder, wincing when it thudded to the floor.
The pack was full of student projects that needed to be graded by the end of the week, and it was already Wednesday night. And, as always, her thesis awaited, with plenty of edits still needed. She decided to change into her pajamas, fix some tea, and get to work. Sally, her roommate, was bartending until late, so she would have no distractions.
While the kettle heated on the stove, she examined her CD collection and removed a cracked CD case from the rack. A young William Darcy, resplendent in white tie and tails and seated at a piano, stared earnestly up at her from the cover. She had always thought it a somber photo of him, but now as she looked closer she saw a hint of a smile in his eyes and around the corners of his mouth. She recognized the expression; he had worn it the night of the rehearsal dinner as they sat together in the lounge, waiting for Jane and Charles.
She shook her head ruefully, still examining the photo. He had improved with age, even more attractive now than in the photo. Too bad what was inside William wasn’t as attractive as the packaging. She inserted the disk into the CD player sitting on a rickety tray table. As she returned to the kitchen to pour her tea, the dark, ominous opening of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 filled the apartment.
The phone indicated a waiting voicemail message. She pushed “play” and heard Charlotte’s voice.
“Liz, it’s Char. Pick up if you’re there … I guess not. I’ll try to call again before my evening class, but I don’t know if I’ll get a chance. If not, call me after midnight your time, if that’s not too late. I need to give you a heads-up about something.”
A beep sounded between messages, and then a deep voice resonated through the small speaker. Her stomach clenched and she inhaled sharply. “Hello, Elizabeth? It’s William. Darcy. I … I wanted to … I have something I need to ask you. I’ll try again later.”
She had wondered if he might call, but she hadn’t been fully prepared to hear his voice, especially not while his CD played in the living room.
He had been in her thoughts far too often since their argument Saturday morning. By day, memories of his high-handed behavior at the café infuriated her. After dark, though, other memories dominated: their intimate dance in the courtyard, the warmth of his gaze before he kissed her, the softness of his lips. William’s gentle, romantic side had touched her heart, while the arrogant man in the café had roused her ire. The end result was that she couldn’t get him out of her mind.
A knot had formed in her stomach—the result, she decided, of overexposure to William. She hurried to the CD player to turn it off. But before she had the chance, a poignant melody cried out from his piano, freezing her in place. The passionate yearning in his music pierced her heart and her eyes filled with reluctant tears. She was transported back to the previous Friday evening when she had watched him play, spellbound. How does he do this to me?
She punched the “stop” button on the CD player. She had to calm down if she hoped to be able to concentrate on the schoolwork awaiting her.
Leisurely bubble baths were one of her favorite treats, and while she didn’t have time for a long one tonight, a brief but luxurious soak in the tub sounded like an excellent plan. And then she would get to work. When the tub was ready, she slipped into the water, inhaling the jasmine and vanilla scent of her favorite bath oil. She leaned back, resting her head on a folded towel while the warm, scented water enveloped her body.
Her mind drifted to Charlotte’s phone message. It was strange that she had been so cryptic. Perhaps it was something private that she didn’t want Sally to hear. It might be a new development in her love life, but Charlotte wouldn’t consider that important enough to warrant a phone call. Elizabeth sometimes wished she could embrace Charlotte’s casual attitude about men, but the notion of sex with near-strangers repelled her. She was sure it would feel empty and meaningless.
Elizabeth’s problem wasn’t a lack of opportunity. Her lip curled in disgust as she thought of several first dates with men who seemed charming at first, but whose primary goal was to get her out of her clothes after the obligatory dinner, play, or concert. Although she ordinarily considered herself a keen observer of human behavior, she seemed to lack her usual powers of discernment when it came to the men she dated. Either that, or there was something about her that made otherwise nice men act like animals.
And falling in love had only made things worse. In her first and only experience with romantic love, a man’s abundant charm had concealed a much different personality. Since then, she had resolved to protect her bruised heart until she met a man so obviously right for her that even she would be able to read the signals correctly.
Since moving to New York after college, Elizabeth had built an active life revolving around her music, her studies, and a diverse group of male and female friends. She had been content … until William Darcy had walked into her life, insulting her, infuriating her, and fascinating her. Why couldn’t she just feel a nice, uncomplicated dislike for him? And beyond that, why was he making her long for something she had done without for such a long time?
The phone rang. It was probably Charlotte, who had said she would try to call again. She scrambled out of the tub, water droplets flying, and wrapped a towel around herself as she ran. She stubbed her toe on the door jamb, grunted in pain, and hopped the rest of the way to the phone.
“Hello?” she panted.
“Elizabeth?” It was a man’s voice; the single word wasn’t enough for her to recognize it.
“This is William Darcy.”
Annoyed that his call had yanked her from her warm bath, her voice was harsh as she replied, “What do you want?”
There was a pause on the line, and when he finally spoke he sounded uneasy. “Well … I, um … how are you?”
“I’m fine,” she snapped. She had no intention of chatting with him while dripping all over the kitchen floor.
“Good … good. I’m glad to hear it.” After another long pause, he continued, “How was your job interview?”
“It was fine.”
“Good. That’s … good.” William’s voice trailed off and silence fell again.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. For this she had raced from the tub? “Well, if there’s nothing else, I have to go. Goodbye.”
Elizabeth hung up the phone before he could respond and stuck out her tongue at it. As she expected, it rang again almost immediately. She disabled voicemail before it could pick up the call. As the phone kept ringing, she could imagine him fuming at the fact that someone had the gall to hang up before the great William Darcy was ready to end the conversation. A tight smile curved her lips; it served him right.
Elizabeth glanced at the clock on the wall in her office. It said it was exactly noon, but the clock was fifteen minutes slow. The whole morning was gone? She sighed. But at least the pile of ungraded papers on her desk had dwindled to almost nothing.
Her shoulders and neck ached from leaning over her desk, and the students’ words had begun to swim in front of her tired eyes. She stretched and massaged her neck, but it didn’t help much. It was time for a break. Her tiny office had no window, and the stuffy atmosphere and beige cinder-block walls had begun to feel like a cage.
Just outside the main doors of the building, she paused to decide where to walk. On such a beautiful spring day in Manhattan, City Hall Park would be a good destination: not too far, yet still far enough for a break and a bit of exercise.
A Mercedes sedan pulled up to the curb but she barely noticed it, too busy fumbling in her purse for her sunglasses.
She turned and saw William striding toward her, a sheaf of roses in his arms.
“William? What are you doing here?”
“I was planning to stop by your office.” He held out the flowers. “These are for you.”
“They’re lovely. Thank you. But, you know, florists deliver all over town. You could have saved yourself the trouble.”
He looked embarrassed. “I … I needed to talk to you.”
“We talked last night,” she replied airily.
“I didn’t get a chance to say what I called to say, and when I called again I couldn’t get through.”
“Oh? I wonder if the phone was out of order.” She had to fight the smirk that threatened to appear on her face. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to talk now. I’m just taking a quick walk to clear my head, and then it’s back to work for me.”
“I could walk with you,” he suggested.
“Oh, I don’t … that is … well, all right.” She cursed her usually quick tongue for deserting her. “But I’d rather not carry the roses the whole way, like I’m Miss America.”
“Allen can keep them till we get back.”
William took the flowers back to the Mercedes and handed them to the driver standing by the car. Then he rejoined Elizabeth, who led the way to the park.
“How did you know where to find me?” she asked.
“I spoke with your roommate this morning. She said you were at school. So I called the university and found out where your office was.”
So Sally was to blame. “You certainly went to a lot of trouble to find me.”
“Did you get the flowers I sent you in San Francisco?”
“The lavender roses? Yes, I did. Thank you.”
“Did you like them?”
“They were beautiful,” Elizabeth admitted reluctantly. “Tell your secretary I loved the color.”
“My secretary had nothing to do with it,” William answered in an injured tone. “I went to the shop and chose them myself. But about the note that came with them ….” She felt his intense gaze resting on her.
“What about it?”
“I’m hoping that you’ve accepted my apology.”
“That depends. Exactly what were you apologizing for?”
“For our conversation in the café.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific.”
He sighed. “I was careless about your feelings. You were upset that the wedding was canceled, and I made it worse with the things I said. I should have kept those thoughts to myself.”
“But you meant all of it, didn’t you? And you still do.” They reached an intersection and paused to wait for the light to change.
“I told you my honest view of the situation, Elizabeth. Honesty is important to me.”
“So you still think Jane was wrong not to stand by Charles.”
“I believe that if you truly love someone, you should accept them as they are. You shouldn’t try to change them into something they’re not.”
Elizabeth was caught off guard by the depth of feeling in his voice. He seemed to have taken Charles’s situation to heart, and she felt her defenses begin to soften. Loyalty toward his best friend was commendable, even if he was taking it too far.
“I guess I’m being idealistic,” he continued in a subdued tone. “I know that’s not the way most people love.”
The light changed, and they crossed the street and continued toward the park.
“And you don’t think Jane ever loved Charles in that way,” Elizabeth suggested in an offhand manner. She felt like a prowling cat, waiting to pounce at his first misstep.
“I don’t think that sort of love can develop in just a few months, and that’s all the time they’ve known each other.”
The speed of Jane and Charles’s courtship had bothered Elizabeth too, so she couldn’t offer much of a rebuttal. “So you don’t believe in love at first sight.”
“I ….” He paused, looking at her in apparent confusion, and then spoke softly. “No, I don’t. Not at first sight, or in a few days or weeks.”
“Me neither. But I do believe that Jane and Charles were in love.”
“Hasty marriages are risky in any case.”
“You have some definite ideas about love. I assume you’re speaking from experience?”
“No,” William answered, his voice somber.
“You’ve never been in love?”
“I thought I was once, but it was just an adolescent crush.”
“And since then you haven’t found anyone worthy of your attention?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” William replied. “But I haven’t found the right person yet.”
“Yes, well, that can be difficult.” Especially for arrogant know-it-alls. “I’m surprised you speak with such authority on the subject, when you don’t have any experience.”
“But I’ve observed the relationships of others, sometimes from a close vantage point. A good observer can develop a well-informed opinion without first-hand experience.”
“Do you mean in general, or in this specific case?”
“Both. I don’t need to break my leg to know that it would hurt. And I don’t need to drink poison to know that it’ll make me sick.” His eyes challenged her to respond.
“Those are extreme examples. You need to walk barefoot in the grass to know how it feels; someone else’s description isn’t that helpful. And when it comes to something as complex as love, if you’ve never experienced it, you can’t understand what it’s like.”
“So you consider yourself more of an authority. Have you ever been in love?”
Elizabeth glanced up and saw William’s dark eyes boring into hers. “Yes,” she said. Anxious to change the subject, she recalled his other primary complaint about Jane’s behavior and went on the attack. “And I suppose you still think Jane was after Charles’s money?”
“I didn’t say that. I said that it could appear that way since she didn’t sign the prenup.”
“And of course people who don’t have money are always interested in getting some, above all else.”
A chorus of car horns erupted nearby as a car blocked an intersection. Elizabeth paused, waiting for the noise to stop. Then she remarked, “That’s a cynical view.”
“I suppose so.” He sighed. “But I’ve met too many people who see a wealthy man as—well, as my cousin puts it, a checkbook with feet. You haven’t experienced it because—”
She stopped walking and whirled to face him. “I know, I know. I couldn’t possibly understand your life because I’m not rich. But I know plenty about being sought after for superficial reasons and not because of who I am inside. You don’t have to be rich to experience that.” Her voice quavered as she fought to maintain her composure.
He touched her arm in a soft caress. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, of course I don’t—”
“You said that the rest of us don’t understand those sorts of obligations.”
William lifted his chin. “You seem to enjoy putting the worst possible spin on every word I say.”
“Well, it’s not that difficult. You do it pretty well all by yourself. For example, I understand that you told a table full of party guests last Friday what an utter failure I was on Broadway.”
He stopped walking abruptly and turned to her, a stricken look on his face. “Elizabeth, I never intended—”
“Aren’t you afraid that being seen with a failure like me could ruin your reputation?’
“I never said that you were a failure.”
“Oh. So I’m putting the worst possible spin on that, too?”
“Yes, you are. I said … as I recall, I said that you hadn’t had the kind of success you probably hoped for. Isn’t that true?”
“How nice, another dose of your unflinching honesty.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Yes, William, it is true, as my mother is only too happy to remind me every time she sees me. But what on earth made you decide to announce it to her, and to everyone else at the table?”
“I was trying to tell your mother how much I respected your talent.”
“Obviously they don’t send you rich boys to charm school, because that’s the most obnoxious ‘compliment’ I’ve ever heard.”
He shook his head. “I know I didn’t express my thoughts well over the weekend. I … I tend to be uncomfortable around strangers.”
“I don’t understand. You must be around strangers all the time in your line of work.”
“It’s different when I’m performing. Then I’m with people who are knowledgeable about music, so it’s easy to find something to discuss.”
“And of course nobody at the rehearsal dinner would have wanted to discuss music with you.”
William’s mouth opened, but then it snapped shut and he simply stared at her.
“Well, at least your behavior makes sense now. You could think of only two topics to choose from: music, which nobody would have wanted to discuss, and the sad state of my singing career.”
“Would you have preferred that I flatter your parents by congratulating them on your amazing success?” he asked, his voice tight. “As though I believed you weren’t capable of more? Wouldn’t that have been even more insulting?”
Elizabeth shook her head and remained silent. It astonished her that he didn’t comprehend how patronizing his comments at dinner had been. William fell silent as well, and they began walking again, both staring straight ahead.
He took a deep breath, and when he spoke, the tension had left his voice. “I realize that what I said was open to misinterpretation, and I’m sorry for that. Let me take you to dinner and make it up to you. I promise I’ll be better company.”
She glanced at him. His beseeching half-smile was devastating, but beneath it she could read the arrogant assumption that his invitation would be accepted. “Take me to dinner?” she replied in a deliberately casual tone.
“Yes. I’m leaving for Boston later today, but I’ll be back Sunday night. How about Monday? Around 7:00? We can make a fresh start.”
Elizabeth laughed contemptuously. “We already made a fresh start last Friday night, remember? And by Saturday morning you were insulting me again. So, no, thank you, I’m not interested in having dinner with you on Monday, or ever, for that matter. I still have a sour stomach from breakfast last Saturday.”
She stopped walking, glaring at him. He stopped as well, frowning, his mouth open.
“Why would you want to have dinner with me, anyway? As you pointed out, I’m not on your social level. I’m a failure on Broadway, nothing but an ‘under-employed chorus girl.’ I have a gold-digging sister who doesn’t live up to the William Darcy Doctrine on the right way to love. And I’m incapable of understanding your world. What I don’t understand is why you’d want to waste your time on someone so unworthy of you.” Elizabeth’s stomach was churning.
He continued to stare in silence.
“What, no smug retort, William? No patronizing speech? Have I silenced the oracle?”
“I … I had no idea you were this upset.” He jammed his hands into his trouser pockets and stared at his shoes.
“Then you haven’t been paying attention. Maybe I’m different from the other people you know, but I don’t enjoy being patronized, and I don’t admire arrogance. Perhaps I’m the first person to tell you this, but you don’t have all the answers. Just because you’re an incredible musical artist doesn’t mean that you know the first thing about being a decent human being!”
He stared at her, his mouth open. She had expected to offend and anger him, but she saw shock and dejection in his eyes, not rage. She had never imagined that she had the power to hurt him. “I have to go now,” she said abruptly. “Goodbye, William.”
She darted across the street and hurried away. A backward glance showed him standing where she had left him, looking strangely deflated. She took a shaky breath and kept walking.
William sat in the first class lounge at Penn Station later that afternoon, waiting to board his train to Boston. Ordinarily he found journeys by train relaxing, but today nothing would calm him.
His initial hurt and humiliation at Elizabeth’s harsh words had evolved into anger. She had twisted his words until they were barely recognizable and then hadn’t let him defend himself. And after that, she had presumed to criticize his behavior? He should be grateful to her, in a way. He had been ambivalent about getting involved with her; at least she had saved him the trouble of making up his mind.
The more he thought about their most recent argument, the more indignant he became. He had humbled himself and had apologized, and she had laughed at him! A man they called “Classical Music’s Sex Symbol,” a man who performed to huge ovations from sellout crowds, didn’t need to tolerate that kind of treatment. Richard was always telling him he could have any woman he wanted. Maybe it was time to find out.
It occurred to him, not for the first time, that his attraction to Elizabeth might simply be a consequence of his recent months of celibacy. His dreams about her were probably a sign of how badly his body craved sex, not anything to do with Elizabeth herself. Certainly she was attractive, but he met women just as beautiful and desirable, if not more so, every day. He would meet plenty of attractive and available women while in Boston, many of whom would be thrilled to share a late supper, a night in bed, and breakfast the next morning with William Darcy. Yes, the William Darcy, the famous concert pianist. If Elizabeth didn’t want him, it was her loss.
He heard the boarding announcement for his train and stood up, nodding savagely. He would emulate Richard for the weekend, sleep with a different woman every night, and return to New York with Elizabeth Bennet out of his system.