William’s alarm clock buzzed, and he flinched. He squinted at the clock in confusion and then whacked the snooze button with far more energy than the task required. His head dropped back onto his pillow as he attempted to cling to the tantalizing shreds of his dream before it dissolved entirely.
The previous evening had been one of the best of William’s life. He and Elizabeth had talked, laughed, danced, kissed … and kissed some more. He burrowed deeper into the softness of the bed and smiled, replaying some of his favorite moments.
Unwilling for Elizabeth to have to face down the gauntlet of curious women in his house, he had made no attempt to entice her into spending the night. Back at her apartment, though, she had invited him in for a cup of coffee, and his hopes had soared.
Unfortunately, they had found Sally lying face down on the couch, sobbing into a throw pillow. Elizabeth’s sympathetic but persistent questioning had finally uncovered the problem. Sally and her boyfriend had broken up following a bitter argument, after which Sally had attempted to numb the pain with a long procession of tequila shooters. William, resigned to his fate, had reluctantly accompanied Elizabeth into the hall to say good night.
“I’m sorry,” she had said, taking his hand, “but she’s my friend and she’s upset. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I wish the evening didn’t have to end so soon.” He put his hands on her shoulders and drew them slowly down her arms, feeling her shiver at his touch.
“I know. Thank you for tonight. It was a perfect evening, one of the nicest I’ve ever spent.”
He had kissed her slowly and thoroughly after that.
Yawning and stretching, he glanced at the clock. If he didn’t get up soon, he would be late meeting Richard. Just a few more minutes and then he would get up, for sure.
At first, Elizabeth had said that she would be busy tonight; a group of her friends were throwing her a farewell party. But while William still held her in his arms, basking in the aftermath of their sultry kiss, he had raised the question again. “You’re leaving so soon,” he said, smoothing a lock of hair away from her cheek, “and I want to see as much of you as possible before you go.”
“I can’t skip the party. I’m the guest of honor.”
His lips moved leisurely across her cheek toward her ear lobe. “Please?” he murmured in her ear.
“I suppose I could bring a date,” she replied in a small, shaky voice.
He had been left with no choice but to kiss her again.
The alarm buzzed again. With a resigned sigh, William turned it off. He considered calling Richard to cancel their plan to run together in the park. But if he did that, Richard might assume that Elizabeth was in his bed. As much as he wished that were true, he didn’t want Richard leering about it.
He dragged himself upright, wincing as his usual morning headache thudded against his temples. The headaches and dizzy spells had grown even worse during his trip to Chicago, and he had finally asked Sonya to make an appointment with Dr. Rosemont. He would see her early next week, after he returned from a weekend performance at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He dressed quickly, laced up his running shoes, swallowed some ibuprofen, and headed downstairs.
After twenty years of running in the park, William knew its paths intimately. Richard liked to run around the reservoir, which offered stunning city views, a well-maintained track, and plenty of female joggers. When William was alone, he preferred to head further north, where the paths wound through quiet woodlands.
But today he had begun to doubt the wisdom of venturing so far from home. His headache was getting worse, and he was becoming dizzy. He slowed his pace to a walk and detoured onto a trail that he knew led to some benches. He dropped wearily onto a bench overlooking a pond.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat unmoving, elbows propped on his knees, his head resting in his hands, but gradually his breathing slowed and his head cleared. He sat up tentatively, waiting for the last of the dizziness to dissipate. At least the setting was tranquil, with tree branches bending gracefully toward the water and birds skimming along the glassy surface of the pond. He began to absently hum the opening theme from Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, its mood well suited to the sylvan landscape.
Elizabeth sat in the kitchen, sipping a cup of tea and staring at the yellow roses on the table. They were beginning to wilt, but she hated the idea of discarding them.
She had awakened early, still in a euphoric haze. But as she reflected on the evening, doubts and worries had begun to creep in. What on earth had she been thinking, inviting him in? No doubt he had considered it an invitation to stay the night, especially after all the kissing they had done. And what about that? A good night kiss or two after a first or second date was one thing, but they had kissed so much that her lips felt swollen. And she had wanted every kiss, and more. What had happened to her?
Without a doubt, William had created the perfect evening. The house, the food, the wine, the music …and the man. He was charming, sincere, and quietly funny. Not only that, but he was polite in a courtly, almost old-fashioned way. And the way he had looked in that tuxedo! No woman could have kept a level head.
Her reverie was interrupted by the beep of the intercom. It was Allen, William’s driver, with a delivery. She buzzed him into the building and walked down to meet him by the elevator. When he appeared and she saw the item in his hands, she let out a sentimental sigh.
Allen politely refused a cup of coffee and departed, leaving Elizabeth holding an envelope in one hand and the purple orchid she had admired last night in the other. She set the plant on the kitchen table, leaned against the counter, and tore the envelope open.
This small token hardly seems an adequate thank you for one of the most enjoyable evenings I have ever spent. I am somewhat reluctant to part with this orchid—as I said last night, it reminds me of you—but it will give me pleasure to think of it living with you in your new home, perhaps reminding you in some small way of me.
With a bittersweet smile, she set the note on the kitchen table beside the orchid. She dialed his cell phone, disappointed to get his voicemail but amused to hear Sonya’s voice inviting her to leave a message. He had told her that he didn’t know how to use his phone, beyond dialing and answering calls, and apparently he hadn’t been exaggerating. She left a quick message thanking him for the gift; she would thank him in person that evening.
William stood in his bathroom, stripping off his sweat-drenched running clothes. His breathlessness and pallor had worried Mrs. Reynolds when she met him at the door, though he had assured her that he was merely tired. Fortunately, Sonya had stopped him on the way upstairs to tell him that Dr. Rosemont, due to a cancellation, could see him tomorrow afternoon.
His assurance to Mrs. Reynolds had been a lie, despite all his efforts to pretend otherwise. He frowned into the mirror, fingering a faint scar on the left side of his chest. He knew what Dr. Rosemont would tell him tomorrow. It was news he had no wish to hear, but three months of denial had accomplished nothing. Instead, his symptoms had gradually worsened until he could no longer even try ignore them. He had always known that this was inevitable, but had hoped it wouldn’t happen quite so soon.
If only he had someone help him face this calamity. Georgie was too young, and Gran and Mrs. Reynolds had endured too much anxiety on his behalf in the past. He and Richard, despite their close friendship, maintained a façade of manly bravado. Sonya was a possibility, but she would dole out straight talk, not the warmth and reassurance he craved. If only he and Elizabeth were together, truly together … but for now, he would have to shoulder the burden alone.
In any case, his odds of ever being “together” with Elizabeth were slim. As memorable as last evening had been, he was racing against the clock, the final minutes inexorably slipping away. 48 hours, and then she would be gone. And what basis did they have for a long-distance relationship? Not enough, not yet, though they had made much progress. He had overcome her anger and disdain, and now she clearly enjoyed his company. Last night she had responded eagerly to his kisses and had willingly nestled in his arms in the roof garden. And in the astonishing moment in his sitting room, their kiss had spoken of something more: the sort of passion that, if given free reign, might help to bond them, perhaps even across the miles.
What if she were here now, looking at me? Would she like what she saw? William was usually confident in his often-praised appearance, but it was essential to win her approval. He studied his reflection in the mirror, ignoring his drawn features and unruly hair and instead scrutinizing his torso. As long as she wasn’t partial to bulging biceps or six-pack abs, he thought she would be pleased. As a teenager, he had been tall and lanky—scrawny, if he was being honest. But the passage of time, combined with a regimen of cautious weight training begun years ago at Richard’s urging, had filled out his chest and arms until he was satisfied with his appearance. William would never have his cousin’s more sculpted build, but that was fine with him. Richard had plenty of free time to spend at the gym, no restrictions on the forms of exercise he could undertake, and an interest in having a muscular body, all of which William lacked.
The lower half of his body was in excellent condition from running, with strong legs and a taut abdomen. He turned, inspecting himself from behind in the mirror. More than one woman had used the word “cute” in reference to his buttocks. Although he wasn’t sure of their evaluative criteria, he supposed he would pass inspection on that score. And as for the rest, he saw nothing to be ashamed of there either.
Not that it mattered. The chances that she would ever see him out of his clothes were slim, unless passion exploded between them that night after the party. So little time. And after that …. His eyes returned to the scar. He sighed and again ran a finger along the pale mark, faded from the intervening years.
Before heading downstairs, William stopped by his sitting room for some papers and noticed a light flashing. To his surprise, the light was coming from his cell phone; he had a voicemail message. This was a rare event even when he traveled; when he was in New York, it was unheard of. The people closest to him were well aware of his antipathy for his cell phone and used it only when absolutely necessary. And no one else had the number—or at least that had been true until a few days ago.
He grabbed the phone, managing after a few false starts to connect to voicemail. What was his password? He had an excellent memory, but for some reason his voicemail password refused to stay in his mind. Grinding his teeth, he bounded down the steps to the second floor.
Sonya arched her eyebrows. “Hello again, boss. How did it go last night?”
“Aside from the house seeming like Grand Central Station, it was perfect.”
“A few too many people around?” Sonya feigned an innocent expression.
“Don’t be coy. At least the other people who interrupted us didn’t do it against my specific instructions.”
“I know. But I couldn’t resist.” She checked the clock on her desk. “It’s almost time for the grant meeting. We’re all set, aren’t we?”
“I think so. But right now I need to know my voicemail password.”
She heaved a loud sigh, rolling her eyes. “You’ve forgotten it again? Don’t you think it’s pathetic to be this much of a techno-idiot?”
“I’m not a techno-idiot. I’ve just never wanted to be instantly accessible to anyone who wants to talk to me. What’s the password?”
She wrote six digits on a yellow Post-It and handed it to him. “Memorize this number. It’s not that hard. Maybe I should hire an eight-year-old to travel around with you and handle your phone. The kid could take care of your email too.”
William turned to go. “Good idea,” he called over his shoulder. “If we can teach him to type a little bit and sass me constantly, I won’t need you anymore.”
He passed through the doorway to his office, already entering his password on the cell phone’s keypad. By the time he sat down behind his desk he was listening to his voicemail. A pleased smile played around the corners of his mouth when he heard Elizabeth’s voice, thanking him for the orchid. Seized by the urge to talk to her at once, he dialed her number.
“Hello?” a raspy voice croaked.
“May I please speak to Elizabeth?”
“She’s not here.”
“This is William Darcy. Is this Sally?”
“I think so, but I wouldn’t swear to it.”
“How are you feeling this morning?” Not that he really cared. He was still holding a grudge over last night.
“Let’s not discuss unpleasant subjects.”
“Sorry to disturb you when you’re … not feeling your best. Do you know when Elizabeth will be back?”
“No. She left a note saying she’d be out running errands for a while. Wanna leave a message? Please say no, ‘cause my vision is so blurry, anything I wrote would prolly look like hieroglyphics.”
“That’s okay. I’ll see her tonight anyway.”
“You don’t mean that you’re coming to the party?”
“Yes, as Elizabeth’s date. Why?”
“I … I’m just surprised she—no, never mind. Guess I’ll see ya tonight, then.”
William hung up the phone, puzzling over Sally’s reaction. He looked up to see Rose standing at the door to his office. “Good morning, Gran.”
“Mrs. Reynolds said you didn’t look well after your run.”
“I’m fine,” William replied in a tone that discouraged further questions.
“Are you ready for the meeting with the school district people?”
“Yes. I assume we’re going to meet in the library?”
“Yes. Did you enjoy your evening?”
“I appreciate that you and Ms. Bennet took some time to speak with me. I know you weren’t enthusiastic about that plan, and I’m sure Ms. Bennet felt the same way.”
“Elizabeth was the one who talked me into going downstairs to see you.” William usually went out of his way to show Rose respect, but in this case he didn’t hide his annoyance. “If it had been up to me, we would have stayed in the roof garden until it was time for her to leave. I think I’m old enough to choose my own friends without your help.”
Rose disregarded his sarcasm. “I must tell you that I am concerned about this situation. You seem quite taken with this young woman, yet we know very little about her.”
“Elizabeth told you she was moving to California in a few days. I would have thought that would have been all you needed to know. She won’t be here, so you can stop worrying.”
She paused, scrutinizing him carefully. “On another subject, I need you to represent us at the Dalton Foundation reception tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Gran, but I have plans.”
“I’m afraid you’ll need to change them. Henry Barton died, and the viewing is tonight. Of course I have to be there.”
He clenched his jaw. “Couldn’t you just go from there to the Dalton event?”
“Certainly not. I’d be much too late arriving. And in any case, Joanna Barton is one of my oldest friends. I can’t drop in and then desert her to drink champagne at a gala reception.”
“Then just skip the reception. The Daltons will understand why you couldn’t be there.”
“But they will not understand why another family member couldn’t attend in my place.”
“But, Gran, ….” William knew he sounded like a whiny child, but he was desperate to avoid the reception. It was bad enough that it would keep him away from Elizabeth’s party; in addition, Mitzi Dalton was often aggressively flirtatious with him, and he lacked the patience to deal with her tonight.
“Someone from the family needs to be there. Eleanor and Robert are in the Hamptons, and I certainly can’t send Richard after what happened last year.”
William almost snickered at this reminder. Mitzi, frustrated by William’s rebuffs, had turned her eye on Richard, who had been far more receptive. Her husband had caught them together in an upstairs bedroom, and Richard was now persona non grata at the Dalton home.
“All right,” he sighed, “I’ll go. But only for a quick appearance. Then I’m leaving.”
“I suppose that will suffice. I assume your plans have something to do with Ms. Bennet?”
“Yes. But tonight may be the last time I’ll see her for months, so you have nothing to worry about.” He was unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“William ….” Rose began, her voice gentle. Then she shook her head and sighed. “The reception starts at 8:30. Black tie.”
It was the same start time as Elizabeth’s party. “Please give Mrs. Barton my condolences.”
“I will, thank you. Shall we go downstairs?”
“You go ahead, Gran. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Rose departed, leaving a thoroughly frustrated William alone in his office. Fate seemed to be conspiring to keep him apart from Elizabeth. But from another perspective, he had only himself to blame. Had he stayed out of her job situation, she wouldn’t be leaving New York.
The house phone rang. It was Mrs. Reynolds, informing him of the arrival of their visitors. His expression dark and brooding, he trudged downstairs to join the group assembling in the library.
It was well past ten o’clock by the time William finally headed for SoHo and Elizabeth’s party. He was seething with frustration. Escaping the Dalton party—and Mitzi’s advances—had taken nearly an hour. Then he had struggled to find a taxi; Allen had been with Rose and therefore unavailable.
Once back at the townhouse, William had convinced the taxi driver to wait for him. He had raced up the steps, taking them two at a time, yanking off his jacket and bow tie as he strode into his bedroom. A small tear in the armhole of his new black sweater, purchased that afternoon at Saks, had sent his frustration hovering near the boiling point, but Mrs. Reynolds had come to the rescue with a quick repair. Now, his taxi sat unmoving amidst a sea of bright taillights and car horns. Judging from the flashing lights and police cars ahead, they wouldn’t be moving any time soon.
His jaw muscles ached from all the clenching they had been called upon to do this evening. He pressed his lips together, exhaling loudly through flared nostrils as he thought of the evening as he had hoped it would unfold. It should have started with him picking Elizabeth up at her apartment, and ended back there with her falling asleep in his arms.
Traffic ahead of them finally began to move, and a jittery William Darcy stared out the window of the cab as it progressed toward SoHo … and Elizabeth.