“When are you going to tell me where we’re going to dinner?” Elizabeth asked as the Darcy family’s Mercedes passed through midtown Manhattan.
Neither Elizabeth nor William had said much on the drive uptown. Elizabeth had been content to sit quietly, enjoying the warmth of her hand in his. Things had changed between them during his trip to Chicago, and she needed time to process the flood of new and unnerving feelings aroused by his presence.
William grinned at her. “Okay. I suppose I’ve played ‘William Darcy, Man of Mystery’ for long enough.”
“More than long enough, especially considering how hard I’ve tried to trick you into confessing! So, come on, out with it. Where are we going?”
“We’re having dinner at my house.”
His house? No doubt in a huge, stately dining room with haughty servants everywhere and his grandmother watching to see if she knew which fork to use. Or else he had sent everyone away, and after dinner he planned to have her for dessert. Elizabeth’s vague feelings of unease were instantly magnified, and she stiffened.
He eyed her, frowning. “Is something wrong?”
She forced a reassuring smile onto her face and sat up straight. “No, it’s just not what I expected. I thought we were going to a restaurant.”
“If you’d prefer that, all I have to do is make a phone call.”
His willingness to change the location to suit her relieved her fears. “No, I’d love to see your house.”
He exhaled in obvious relief. “Good, because Mrs. Reynolds would kill me if we didn’t show up. She’s been cooking and cleaning for the past two days.”
There was something endearing about the idea of William, with all his wealth and influence, fearing the wrath of his housekeeper. “Then I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. And I can thank her first-hand for the dinner last week.”
“She’s looking forward to meeting you. And I’d like you to meet my sister, Georgiana, if that’s all right with you.”
“Of course. I’d like that.”
“She’s at a friend’s house right now, but she should be back before it gets too late. However, I doubt we’ll see Gran; she’s out for the evening.”
That, at least, was a relief.
The car pulled up in front of the townhouse. Elizabeth stepped out onto the sidewalk, admiring the stately limestone building with its large windows and ornate balconies. She craned her neck to see the higher floors.
“Thank you. My great-great-grandfather had it built in 1896. He was named William Darcy, too.”
“Then ‘William’ is an old family name.”
“Yes, though if you go back far enough, it was ‘Fitzwilliam.’”
“Like Richard’s last name?”
“That’s a coincidence, believe it or not. My great-great-great-great-grandfather Fitzwilliam was the first Darcy to cross the Atlantic. He was the younger son and namesake of a prominent English landowner. The elder son was heir to the bulk of the estate, so Fitzwilliam sailed to Barbados to make his own fortune. He did very well, mostly because he married the only child of a planter.”
“Clever fellow.” She was fascinated by the energy and enthusiasm in his voice as he told the story, in sharp contrast to his usual reserved demeanor.
“I’ve read about that era in Barbados, and the only viable way to make a fortune was through marriage. Most of the arable land was already owned by the large estates. Slavery had recently been abolished, but the former slaves had little choice but to keep working on the plantations for paltry wages. It’s terrible how—”
He stopped speaking, and the animation drained from his face. “I’m sorry. History is a passion of mine, and sometimes I forget that not everyone shares my fascination.”
She touched his arm and smiled. “No, please, go on. I assume Fitzwilliam and his wife had children who kept the plantation going?”
“Yes. In fact, we still own the plantation house.”
“Seriously?” She hadn’t expected this.
“Seriously,” he replied, with mock gravity. “The house is called Pemberley. Fitzwilliam named it after his family’s estate in England. The agricultural land was sold long ago, but we use the house as a vacation home. It’s on a high bluff overlooking the ocean, surrounded by a tropical garden.”
“It sounds amazing.”
He nodded, a distant smile on his face. “It’s my favorite place in the world. I don’t get there often enough.”
“How did your family end up in New York?”
“One of Fitzwilliam’s grandsons came here to attend Columbia University, and he never went home. He started our company and did quite well for himself. He’s the one who had the house built.”
“It’s so impressive that you know your family history. I couldn’t begin to tell you who my great-great-grandfather was, much less my great-great-great—well, however many ‘greats’ you said.”
He ushered her through the wrought iron gate in front of the house. “My grandmother is a big believer in keeping family traditions alive. That’s why we still own this house. Gran sees it as part of our heritage, and she won’t hear of selling it and buying a penthouse with a park view.”
“Is that what you’d like to do?”
“Yes and no. We’d probably be more comfortable in a place like that, and Richard is always making jokes about how mired in antiquity we are. But on the other hand, it means something to me that five generations of my family have lived in this house, and that someday my children will be the sixth.”
The front door swung open, and Elizabeth found herself face to face with a slightly plump, grandmotherly woman with silver hair and wire-rim glasses. She wore a simple black dress, a string of pearls, and a warm smile.
“Good evening, Ms. Bennet, Mr. Darcy.”
“Elizabeth, this is Mrs. Reynolds,” William said. “Mrs. Reynolds, this is Elizabeth Bennet.”
“I’m so glad to meet you, Mrs. Reynolds.”
“Ms. Bennet, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. We’ve been looking forward to your visit.”
Mrs. Reynolds led them into the house. The foyer was large and elegant, with an ornate table in the center holding a massive floral arrangement and a large gilt-edged mirror on the wall that was obviously, even to Elizabeth’s untrained eye, a valuable antique. The lofty ceiling made the area seem even larger than it was, and the polished marble floors shone. Through an arched doorway, Elizabeth saw a spacious living room.
“Excuse me, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Reynolds said. “Sonya wondered if you could spare her a moment.”
“She’s still here?” William frowned.
“She said an important piece of business came up, and promises it won’t take long.”
He shook his head and sighed noisily. “Elizabeth, this is terribly rude of me, but may I leave you with Mrs. Reynolds for a few minutes so I can handle this?”
“Of course,” she answered.
“You go ahead, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “I’ll take good care of Ms. Bennet till you get back.”
William departed, and Elizabeth smiled at Mrs. Reynolds. “Thank you so much for the delicious dinner you sent me last week.”
“I’m so glad you enjoyed it. But Mr. Darcy deserves the credit; it was his idea. When he told me what he wanted to send you, I thought to myself, ‘I wish, just once in my life, a handsome young man had done something that lovely for me.’ But most men aren’t as thoughtful as Mr. Darcy.”
“It was very kind of both of you.” Elizabeth was amused by Mrs. Reynolds’s obvious affection for William.
“Would you like to go into the library? That’s where Mr. Darcy wanted to have drinks before dinner.”
Elizabeth looked around her in awe as they passed through the living room, with Mrs. Reynolds leading the way. A huge fireplace with an ornate hearth dominated one wall. Oriental rugs covered portions of the gleaming hardwood floor. The room was furnished mostly in antiques, and Elizabeth guessed that most of them had been in the family for several generations.
“It’s a fresco. You have to see it from the sixth floor; it’s one of my favorite things about the house. That, and the library. Oh, and also the greenhouse.”
“There’s a greenhouse?”
“Yes, on the roof. And a small garden, too.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Oh, my goodness. I had no idea.”
“It’s a lovely house, from top to bottom. I’d take you on a tour, but I think Mr. Darcy is planning to do that himself. And you’ll definitely see the greenhouse and the roof garden, since you’re having dinner up there.”
“That sounds wonderful.” And very different from her imagined formal meal with white-glove service.
“Oh, good, I’m glad. Mr. Darcy was particular about the arrangements, and he thought you’d like it up there. We were so pleased that the weather cooperated.”
“It’s a beautiful evening.”
“I take it Mr. Darcy hasn’t told you much about the house?”
“Not that much. But just now, when we were outside, he was telling me some family history.”
“He’s so proud of his heritage, as he should be. The Darcys have a long history as leading citizens in New York, and his ancestors would be proud of him. He’s the most talented, the smartest, and the most generous man you could ever hope to meet.”
“What a beautiful room!” Elizabeth exclaimed.
“Isn’t it? This floor of the house has all the public rooms. Mrs. Darcy entertains her friends here periodically, and the family meets for brunch every Sunday, but otherwise these rooms don’t get much use.”
“William doesn’t give many parties?”
Mrs. Reynolds shook her head. “He travels so much, the poor boy. It’s a lonely life for him, being by himself on the road. What he needs is to find a nice girl, settle down, and start a family. But first he has to find someone who deserves him, and that’s going to be a tall order.”
Elizabeth suppressed a smile. “How long have you been with the Darcys?”
“Since before William was born. I’ve known him since he moved here with his parents when he was just a little tyke. And in all that time, he’s never treated me with anything but kindness and respect. He has his moods, but that’s just because he feels things so deeply. He’s a wonderful grandson and a loving brother. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for the people he loves.”
“What was he like as a child?”
“He was the sweetest little boy you’d ever want to meet; so respectful and polite. Such a beautiful child, too, with huge brown eyes. He was quiet, and he didn’t laugh or smile as much as most children.” Mrs. Reynolds’s smile held a touch of melancholy. “But I suppose that’s not surprising, given everything he went through back then.”
“Oh?” This sounded like a clue to the real William Darcy.
Mrs. Reynolds’s eyes widened. After a split-second pause, she began to speak rapidly. “But listen to me, blathering on and not even offering you something to drink. Would you like a glass of wine? I have Mr. Darcy’s favorite Chardonnay chilling in the kitchen, but if you prefer a red, I can just run down to the wine cellar.”
“Chardonnay sounds perfect.”
“I’ll be right back. Why don’t you go out and enjoy the garden? I’m sure Mr. Darcy will be down to join you any minute.”
Elizabeth smiled her thanks and decided to take Mrs. Reynolds’s suggestion. She exited the library and stepped onto a small brick patio behind the house. The garden was compact, but it offered a pleasant oasis in the midst of the city.
She needed to stop jumping to conclusions about William’s world. His house was somewhat overwhelming, as she had anticipated, but Mrs. Reynolds was the antithesis of the haughty, stiff butler Elizabeth had expected to find. And he was clearly not a stern, forbidding master, barking out orders, considering the effusive praise Mrs. Reynolds had heaped on him. She looked back at the house and noted a series of balconies on the upper floors, terraced so that the larger, lower-floor balconies were partially uncovered. One of them undoubtedly belonged to William. She wondered where he was, and what he was thinking, at that moment.
After dispensing with his business with Sonya as quickly as possible and sternly ordering her not to “accidentally” bump into Elizabeth on her way out of the house, William conducted a final inspection of his bedroom, quadruple-checking that it was ready for a visitor, just in case. He studied his reflection in the dressing room mirrors, straightened his black bow tie, and took a deep breath. Then, turning resolutely on his heel, he strode into the hall and descended the stairs to the first floor.
As he passed the kitchen, he nearly collided with Mrs. Reynolds, who was carrying a small tray with two glasses of wine.
“William!” she exclaimed, struggling to keep the glasses from spilling.
He deftly rescued the glasses. “Sorry, Mrs. Reynolds. I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“I was just taking these to the library. Ms. Bennet is out in the garden.”
“I’m on my way there, so I’ll save you the trip.”
“She’s a lovely young lady.”
He nodded, not trusting himself to say anything.
“Is 8:30 still a good time to serve dinner?”
He checked his watch. “That should be fine. Is the table set on the roof?”
“You can go up whenever you like. Enjoy your evening, dear.”
Mrs. Reynolds had mostly broken the habit, formed during his childhood, of using endearments when speaking to him, but occasionally one still escaped. William didn’t mind, as long as she was careful to address him properly in the presence of outsiders.
He passed through the doors from the library to the garden, juggling the wine glasses. Elizabeth stood off to one side, bending over a rose bush to inhale the scent of one of the blooms.
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” he said.
She straightened and turned to face him. “It’s fine. I’m enjoying being out here; it’s beautiful.”
“I’m glad you like it.” He handed her a glass of wine.
“What shall we drink to?” she asked.
“To your new job.”
They stood together on the small lawn, silently sipping their wine. The sun sat low in a sparkling blue sky, and the fragrance of the shrub roses mixed with the scent of the freshly-mowed grass, creating the unmistakable perfume of summer.
“I’m glad you brought me here for dinner,” she said, breaking the silence.
“So am I.”
“It’s helping me to understand you better. But there’s something I have to ask.”
“It’s about the tuxedo. Do you always dress this way for meals at home? I’ve been imagining you at breakfast, eating your Frosted Flakes and trying not to spill milk on your dinner jacket. Or does one wear a morning coat at the breakfast table?”
Her eyes sparkled with merriment, and he stared at her, enchanted. He stepped closer and ran a finger tenderly along her cheek. “This isn’t an ordinary dinner at home, Elizabeth. I wanted this to be a special evening.” He continued to caress her cheek, and her expression softened. “I’ve always liked this garden,” he murmured, leaning over as she raised her face to his, “but it’s never been more beautiful than it is right now.”
“William, are you out here?”
It was Sonya. Elizabeth sprang away from him and studiously examined the rosebushes. William pivoted on his heel and faced his secretary, grinding his teeth.
“I thought you had left,” he said curtly.
“I have just one more thing for your signature. It’ll only take a second. Oh, and this must be Elizabeth. I’m Sonya Lawrence, William’s secretary. I’m so pleased to meet you.”
Elizabeth greeted Sonya, and they began to chat. William was far too frustrated to concentrate on what the women were saying, so he contented himself with glowering at his studiously oblivious secretary.
Finally, he had had enough. “I know you’re anxious to get home,” he said in a commanding voice, taking Sonya’s arm firmly, “so let me walk you out, and I’ll sign that document. Please excuse me, Elizabeth. I’ll be right back.”
“Nice to meet you!” Sonya called out over her shoulder as William propelled her forward.
He marched her briskly through the house and to the front door. “Just what did you think you were doing?” he snapped. “I specifically told you not to do that.”
“Yes, you did,” she retorted with a smug smile. “And once you did that, I couldn’t resist. Did I interrupt something?”
“None of your business.”
“Ah, so I did, then. Sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb a romantic moment. But I had to make sure I approve of this woman who’s got you all tied up in knots.”
“And?” He asked the question with deliberate sarcasm, hoping to hide his interest in her answer.
“Well, I didn’t get to talk to her for long, what with you dragging me away so soon.” She smirked at him.
“Cut it out. What did you think?”
“She seems terrific. Bright, lively, and completely down to earth. What she sees in you, I can’t fathom.”
He shook his head in long-suffering silence.
“Oh, come on, you know I’m kidding. I like her. She may even turn out to be good enough for you, and despite your myriad character flaws, that’s saying something.”
His lips quirked into a reluctant smile at the backhanded compliment. “Thank you, I think.”
“So I’m not fired?”
“Good, because you’d never find anybody else who’d put up with you. Have fun, boss, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
Sonya departed, and William made his way through the house. He found Elizabeth in the library, scanning the bookshelves.
“Sonya seems really nice,” she said. “And you have quite a fan club in this house. Everybody I meet keeps singing your praises.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He took her hand. “I bribed them all handsomely, and I’d hate to think I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. Now, would you like to see the rest of the house?”
Of all the rooms on the second floor, Elizabeth liked William’s office best. It was decorated in dark, rich colors and, like the living room, was furnished in antiques. “You can feel the history in here,” she breathed.
William smiled at her, dimples creasing his cheeks, and her heart did a peculiar flip-flop in her chest. He led her slowly around the room, showing her his collection of antique maps and globes. She was touched by his almost childlike pleasure in sharing these prized possessions with her, and she made an effort to draw him out further by asking questions about the maps. Then she pointed to the large portrait above the fireplace. “Who are they?”
“Your mother was beautiful.”
“Yes, she was.” His smile was wistful.
“I can see the resemblance between the two of you, especially in the eyes. Were you and your mother close?”
“Yes. She was devoted to me.”
“And to Georgiana too, I’m sure.”
“Georgie was only a few months old when Mamma died.”
“Oh, no, how sad. How old were you?” She already knew the answer, but didn’t want to admit that she had researched him online.
“That must have been so hard.”
“It was.” He sighed. “After all this time, I still miss her every day.”
She watched him gazing up at his mother in the portrait, and saw a bittersweet smile on his lips. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, touching his arm.
His dark eyes fell on her, seeming to peer into her soul. He took her wine glass, set it on the hearth, and took her hands in his, drawing her closer. “Elizabeth,” he murmured. A thrill of anticipation streaked through her as he leaned forward, his lips descending toward hers.
She stepped away, stumbling over the edge of the rug, but managed to regain her balance. Allen Reynolds stood in the doorway, a wine bottle in his hand and a stricken look on his weathered face.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Darcy. My wife sent me up to see if you’d like any more wine.”
William exhaled loudly. “No thank you, Allen. You can take it back to the kitchen.”
“Of course, sir.”
Allen all but sprinted from the room. William turned back to Elizabeth, his eyes mournful. His pitiful expression was the last straw; she could no longer contain her giggles. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s just—” She burst out laughing, unable to finish. And to think she had worried about being alone in the house with him!
“Sometimes I wish I lived in a cave in Tibet,” he grumbled, but she saw a faint twinkle in his eye. A smile gradually stole across his face, and he began to chuckle softly.
She stepped close to him, raised up on tiptoe, and planted a soft kiss on his lips. She stepped back, out of reach, before he had a chance to react. “Maybe that will break the jinx.”
“I hope so.” They smiled at each other.
“So,” she asked, “do we go to the third floor next?”
“If you like. My private rooms are there.”
“Oh.” She wished she could rewind the conversation and erase her question. The last thing she had intended was to ask to see his bedroom.
“I’d especially like to show you the piano in my sitting room.”
That was a relief; his sitting room sounded like a safe place. Besides, someone was sure to burst in the minute they arrived there. She grinned at the thought and said, “Lead the way.”
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, running her fingers over its polished surface with reverence.
“Gran gave it to me for my 30th birthday.”
“And you have to bring people all the way up here to see it.”
He shook his head. “I don’t bring people up here. This is my private place.”
“But I’m here.”
Unnerved by the intensity of his gaze, she sought a less personal subject. “No wonder your house has to be so big, with all the pianos. I’ve seen three so far; is that all?”
“Yes. The piano in the library doesn’t get much use. The one on the second floor is Georgie’s; it used to be up here. This is the one I play the most. I like to have privacy when I practice.”
“I bet it sounds wonderful. Would you play something for me?”
He pulled out the piano bench. “I will if you’ll sit with me.”
“So I can turn your invisible pages again?” she asked, grinning, as they seated themselves.
“Absolutely. I missed my invisible page turner in Chicago. Is there anything special you’d like to hear?”
She shook her head. “I’ll enjoy anything you choose.”
He sat quietly for a moment, studying the keys, and then began to play. This piece was gentler and more contemplative than the stormy compositions with which he was so often associated. A plaintive melody sang out, piercing her heart with its sweetness. As was typical when he played, he seemed to escape reality and slip into the world of his music. She felt herself being pulled along to a place of rare beauty as the music ebbed and flowed around her, forging a bond between them that she didn’t understand, but was powerless to resist.
William lifted his hands from the keyboard as the final chord of the Brahms Intermezzo1 slowly faded away. He turned to Elizabeth and was astonished to see that she was crying.
“What’s wrong?” He reached out and captured a teardrop as it rolled slowly down her cheek.
“How do you do that?” she asked, her voice clogged with emotion. “Your music always makes me cry, and I don’t know how you do it. You make me feel all these things, and they go straight to my heart, and …. ”
“Lizzy,” he murmured, caressing her cheek, “please, don’t cry.”
Their eyes locked, emotion surging between them. They leaned toward each other and their lips met, tentatively at first, but the urgency escalated rapidly. Elizabeth moaned softly and her arms curled around his neck. He shuddered with desire, her eager response inflaming him. His tongue teased her lips, probing gently until her mouth opened under his. Groaning deep in his chest, he wrapped his arms tightly around her.
Fierce hunger electrified William’s nerve endings, and as the kiss continued he thought of his bedroom, his private sanctuary just across the hall. His few functioning brain cells argued that the time wasn’t right, that it was too soon, that he needed to maintain control, but his ravenous body refused to listen. Finally, reason triumphed over desire, and he forced himself to break off the kiss.
They sat together, foreheads touching, eyes closed, still clinging to each other, the silence broken only by their shallow breathing. Nothing in William’s experience had ever come close to the pure ecstasy of that kiss.
He saw in her eyes that she too was shaken by the emotion that had flared between them. He kissed her tenderly and drew her head onto his shoulder, caressing her hair. Finally, he felt her stirring, trying to sit up straight, and he reluctantly released her.
“I … I think I’d better go check my make-up,” she said, her voice trembling. “I probably messed it up when I started crying, and then ….”
“You look beautiful,” he said, surprised to hear a hoarse note in his own voice. “But feel free to use my bathroom. It’s the door to the left on the other side of the stairs. I can show you where—”
“No.” She leapt to her feet. “I’ll find it. Besides, I need to go downstairs and get my purse. I’ll be back soon.”
She passed through the doorway without a backward glance. His lips curled into a lazy grin and he closed his eyes, basking in the afterglow of that incredible kiss.
But in less than three days, she would be gone. His smile faded.