Elizabeth’s stomach fluttered as the car pulled away from the club. She and William were alone except for Allen, and once they reached her apartment they would be entirely on their own. She had been both anticipating and fearing this moment all evening. William shifted closer and took her hand.
“I know you didn’t have much fun tonight,” she said. “I should have realized that the party wouldn’t be your kind of thing.”
He shrugged. “It was okay. Besides, now we’ve gotten to the part of the evening I’ve been looking forward to.”
She turned away from him and stared out the window, hoping to conceal her growing anxiety. He traced his thumb across her palm, stroking it with a delicate touch that made her arm tingle. Just when she thought she couldn’t bear the delightful torture any longer, he released her hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer.
“I wish you’d let me stop by tomorrow night,” he said, toying with a lock of hair that fell over her shoulder. “I’m sure Mrs. Reynolds would be happy to make tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches again.”
“Mmm. Do you suppose she could send some chocolate mousse for dessert too?”
“If that’s what it takes to get you to say yes, I’m sure it can be arranged. But there is one condition, and it’s a deal-breaker.”
“And that would be?”
“This time, I’ll be the one delivering the food, and it’ll be dinner for two.”
His fingers caressed her bare arm, raising goosebumps in their wake. She shivered.
“How does that sound?” he whispered in her ear.
“Very … nice,” she replied in an unsteady voice. It was hard to think with his lips tickling her ear. “But … I don’t know. I really do have … a lot of packing to do.”
“No matter how busy you are, you need to eat. Besides, I could help you pack. And then, later, we could ….” His voice faded away as his lips traced a path from her ear across her cheek.
“William, wait,” she whispered weakly. “Allen—”
“Is busy driving the car,” he murmured. She felt his warm breath against her cheek. “He won’t notice a thing. Besides, I’ve been waiting all evening to do this.”
His mouth brushed hers softly, back and forth, tempting her to respond, and she could no longer resist. Desire shot through her, and she yielded to his gentle assault on her senses. The car made its way across town, the inhabitants of the back seat oblivious to everything but the heat they were generating. As his kisses deepened, she noted that he tasted faintly of scotch, a detail that jolted her back to full awareness.
Gently but firmly, she pushed on his chest. “We have to stop,” she whispered. “You may not care that Allen is in the car, but I do.”
He heaved a sigh and leaned back against the seat. “Do you know how many times you’ve pushed me away tonight?”
“I just think it’s better to keep private things private. I would think you’d agree. You seem to be a private person.”
“But we are in private now.”
“It doesn’t seem that way to me.” Not with a driver she’d met only a few times before sitting in the front seat.
He sighed, slid his arm around her shoulders, and resumed his gentle stroking up and down her arm.
When they arrived at her building, William escorted her inside. The moment the elevator doors closed behind them, he grasped her shoulders and captured her mouth in a slow, deep kiss. Resistance was impossible; she melted against him, one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, the other caressing his neck and jaw.
She barely noticed when the elevator doors opened. He nudged her gently toward the door, his lips still melded to hers, and propelled her down the hall with slow, awkward steps. Only when they reached her apartment door did he loosen his hold to allow her to retrieve her key. She fumbled in her purse while he stroked her hair, combing his fingers through her unruly curls.
No sooner was the apartment door closed behind them than William’s mouth came down on hers again, hot and hungry. He pressed her against the door, her face cupped in his hands. “Lizzy,” he whispered against her mouth. “You’re so beautiful.”
Somewhere in a remote corner of her mind, warning bells rang, but they were overwhelmed by the insistent ache building in her body, and a hunger that melted her defenses. He pressed tightly against her, and a shudder—whether of desire, fear, or both, she wasn’t certain—passed through her. It was enough to clear her mind at last. She pulled her lips away from his and removed his hands from her face, pushing him gently but firmly away.
William stood looking at her, his chest heaving, bewilderment etched on his features. Despite having just extricated herself from his embrace, she began to imagine sliding her hands under his black sweater and drawing it upward, inch by inch.
Stop being such a weakling. There is no reason to come unglued.
“It’s late,” she began tentatively.
“Please don’t ask me to leave, Lizzy. Not yet.”
“Well … how about some coffee before you go?”
Alone in the kitchen, Elizabeth grasped the counter and tried to clear her mind. Never before had she understood when friends had talked about being swept away by passion, but now it was all too clear how that might happen, especially with a man like this one, who was passionate and so very desirable. He probably had women lined up outside his bedroom door every night, just waiting for their chance.
Well, there’s a sobering image.
William stood in the living room, inspecting Elizabeth’s CD collection. Last night he had been amused and flattered to discover that she owned what appeared to be a complete collection of his recordings. He was about to skip past them when he remembered her powerful response to his piano solo the night before. It might be ungentlemanly to exploit her susceptibility to his music, but these were desperate times. He scanned her CDs, found what he was looking for, and loaded it into the player, nodding in approval as soft jazz piano music began to play. Definitely the right mood.
Next, he glanced around the living room, grimacing at the drab walls, the threadbare sofa, and the scratched coffee table. He turned off the harsh overhead light and switched on a small lamp in a corner, plunging the room into deep shadows. It was not the atmosphere he would have chosen for their first time making love, but perhaps her bedroom would provide a more pleasant setting. He hoped he would have a chance to find out.
That task complete, he ambled into the tiny kitchen, smiling in satisfaction at the sight of a dozen yellow roses in a vase on the table. Elizabeth stood with her back to him, watching the coffeemaker dispense its dark, fragrant brew. He wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her back against him. She didn’t respond at first, but when he gathered her hair to one side and nuzzled her neck, she sighed and relaxed against him.
“Did I tell you how lovely you look tonight?” he murmured in her ear. “You take my breath away.” He breathed deeply, inhaling her fragrance, and tightened his arms around her. Holding her this way felt impossibly good, and a low groan escaped his throat.
She wriggled out of his arms. “Coffee’s ready,” she said.
They took their coffee into the living room. “Nice choice of music,” Elizabeth said with a smile. She picked up the CD case, which showed William seated at the piano in a contemplative mood. The title read, ‘Round Midnight: Jazz Encores by William Darcy.
She put the CD case back on the table and sat on the sofa. “This is going to be a little strange, sitting with you while listening to your CD. It’s like having two William Darcys entertaining me at once.”
William seated himself beside her, one arm stretched across the sofa back. “Are you saying that one William Darcy isn’t enough?” he asked with a grin.
Elizabeth smiled. “Not at all. In fact, I think I’ve got more than I can handle with just one of you.”
He stretched his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. They sat together quietly for a few minutes, sipping their coffee and listening to the music.
Finally, he broke the warm silence. “About tomorrow night. I was serious about my dinner suggestion. I’m not ready to say goodbye.”
“It would be nice to see you again, but I’ll probably get my packing done faster if I don’t have any distractions.”
“Is that all I am to you? A distraction?” His fingers traced a path up and down her arm, and he felt her shudder. “Let’s see how distracting I can be.”
He set down his coffee mug. “Lizzy,” he whispered, cupping her cheek in his palm and leaning toward her. When their lips met, a jolt of sensual heat obliterated everything but his need for her; he poured every ounce of frustrated desire into his kisses.
William wondered, in the small portion of his brain that continued to function, why this woman drove him to such agonies of desire, why her kisses inflamed him and robbed him of rational thought, why she was as necessary to him as breathing. He didn’t know the answer; he only knew that he had to have her.
Mindless rapture washed over him when she buried her fingers in the hair at his nape and tentatively darted her tongue between his lips. With a fierce groan, William crushed her to him, his hands sliding up and down her back and tangling in her hair. He gasped her name against her lips as they both dragged air into their oxygen-starved lungs. He leaned over her, easing her backward until her head rested on the sofa arm. His eyes burned into hers, and for a moment he thought he saw her frown. But when his mouth descended to capture hers again, she moaned and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him ardently.
Hungry to touch and taste every inch of her, his lips left hers and traveled to her jaw and down her neck. He ran his hand down her arm and then up the side of her torso, brushing his fingers lightly against her breast.
He raised his head and gazed at her flushed face. She reached up to smooth his hair off his forehead. The affection in her eyes sent a calming wave of tenderness through him. “Cara,” he whispered, running a finger across her parted lips in a feather-light touch.
“What does that mean?” she whispered.
“It’s Italian for ‘dear one.’ Or ‘darling.’” He dipped his head to hers and kissed her softly, brushing his lips over hers.
Soon, though, urgent heat began to build again. He knew from her kisses, and from the way her hands slipped under his sweater to explore his back, that she felt it too. Unable to resist temptation any longer, his hand slid from her neck downward, exploring the curves he had longed to touch.
Elizabeth pulled her lips away from his, her hands at his back ceasing their caresses. “William—” she began. But he continued to caress her. It felt like heaven to touch her this way. He leaned over to kiss her again, groaning with delight, his need to possess her overwhelming him. His hand slipped under the hem of her blouse to explore further. Captivated by the softness of her skin, he was scarcely aware that his hand was moving upward.
Suddenly, Elizabeth grabbed his arm. “Stop that!” she cried in a strident voice drenched in panic.
Although his passion-soaked brain was befuddled by her frightened reaction, he promptly moved his hand, resting it on her hip. “Lizzy, what’s wrong?” He sat up, perched precariously on the edge of the sofa.
She struggled into an upright position and pulled her blouse down. “What do you mean, ‘what’s wrong’?” she retorted. “You were trying to undress me.”
“But I thought you—”
“You thought wrong. I’m not interested in casual sex.”
“Neither am I.”
“Then why are you trying to seduce me when we’ve only just started dating?”
Just started dating? She had been the center of his thoughts for … it seemed like forever. “Lizzy, you’re leaving, and I’m going to miss you, and I—”
“So this is some kind of parting gift you think you deserve?”
“Of course not. Lizzy, I love you.”
She stared at him, her eyes huge. “You love me?”
The declaration had slipped out unintended, but it was too late to deny it now. He let out a huge sigh. “Yes. I love you.”
She stared at him, her chest rising and falling rapidly, and then she reached out. For a triumphant moment, William thought she was going to embrace him. Instead, she shoved him, catching him off guard and off balance, and he fell from the sofa onto the floor. His shoulder bumped the table, knocking over her mug of coffee. Its contents sloshed onto his sweater and slacks.
She jumped to her feet, glaring down at him. “How dare you lie about loving me to get me into bed?”
“It’s the truth. I’m in love with you.” He hauled himself awkwardly to his feet, gaping at the anger flashing in her eyes.
“Stop it. Just stop it,” she said in a choked voice. “You couldn’t possibly love me. You told me a few weeks ago that you don’t believe in love at first sight. You must think I’m so completely under the spell of The Great William Darcy that all it takes is a few sugar-coated lies, and I’ll let you take anything you want from me. Well, sorry to disappoint you. That may work with most women, but I’m not a gullible fool.”
“I’m not lying, Lizzy. Why can’t you believe that I have feelings for you?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “For openers, you’ve never even said anything about staying in touch after I move.”
“I was going to talk to you about it tonight. And I was going to keep on calling you in the evenings, like we’ve been doing lately. And even if you didn’t want a long-distance relationship, I was planning to see you whenever I was on the West coast.”
“How convenient. A girl—and a bed—in every port, so you never have to sleep alone. I take it you have an opening for a California girl? Or maybe just northern California; you probably have someone in LA already. Besides the ever-available Caroline Bingley, of course.”
He struggled to swallow his annoyance. “I don’t have ‘a girl in every port.’ In fact, I don’t have a girl in any port. But I want you in my life. I hate that you’re leaving, and I don’t want to say goodbye.”
“Right. You’re so choked up about it that you didn’t even bother to show up for my farewell party until hours after it started.”
“I explained that. The charity event—”
“Oh, come on.” Her eyes were cold, her voice cynical. “Your only interest was in taking me home and getting me into bed. So you found some other woman—someone at your social level, I’m sure—to spend the evening with, and then you waltzed into my party just in time to bring me back here. Did you bribe Sally to dream up that story about the audition, so she’d be out of the way?”
Rage simmered inside him. Her unfounded accusations were an insult to his pride and his character. All he had done was to love her with all his heart, sacrificing his wishes for her happiness, and this was how he was treated in return.
He stalked across the room, counting to ten in Italian under his breath, and smacked the “Stop” button on the CD player. Then he turned back to her, struggling to keep his voice calm. “You think I have so little integrity, and so little regard for you?”
“What else should I think? You made it clear how you felt about the party. From the moment you arrived, you couldn’t wait to leave. You acted as though you expected to catch a fatal disease from my friends. Sitting all alone, looking down your nose at everyone—”
“I didn’t attend the party to meet your friends. I wanted to be with you. And instead I sat alone while you deserted me at every opportunity.”
“And why not, the way you were behaving,” she snapped. “But that’s beside the point. I have no intention of being the next in your long string of conquests. So you’d better open your little black book and find somebody else to scratch your itch.”
“Why do you keep insisting that I’m some kind of Casanova?” His foot bumped against the fallen coffee cup, and he kicked it aside. “I haven’t been with a woman since … I can’t remember, it’s been so long. I didn’t even have any condoms; I had to buy some yesterday.”
“You bought them yesterday?” Her eyes blazed, and he winced. “So that’s why you didn’t want to go to a restaurant last night. You thought I’d be so impressed by your big fancy house that I’d just fall into your bed. I had no idea that was what Mrs. Reynolds meant when she said you’d done lots of planning for our date.”
He stared at her in silence. It was a no-win situation. Suppose they’d decided to make love and he hadn’t been prepared. Then she would have cursed him for being irresponsible.
“I am such an idiot,” she said as she stormed across the room to flip on the overhead light. “I keep falling for the same routine, thinking a man is special, and that he thinks I’m special, too. And then I find out he’s only interested in one thing.”
William was out of patience. “Basta!” he bellowed. “I’ve heard enough of these insulting accusations.”
Elizabeth folded her arms across her chest and regarded him with a disbelieving expression that fed his anger.
“I’m sorry it offends you that I find you desirable,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I suppose it would be more gallant if I wanted nothing more than a chaste kiss on the brow, but obviously that’s not the case. Whether you believe it or not, I have feelings for you that go far beyond the physical. But, yes, I want you, more than I’ve ever wanted a woman in my life.”
Her arms remained crossed over her chest, but he thought he noted a slight softening in her eyes. She remained silent, seemingly ready to listen to him at last.
“In addition to that,” he continued, “I don’t think a chaste kiss would have satisfied you either.”
“I was getting plenty of encouragement, right up to the moment when you pushed me away.”
“So you’re saying I’m a tease? That I purposely led you on and then slammed on the brakes?”
He sensed danger in her glare and her arched eyebrow, but he was too angry to care. It was finally his turn to vent his frustrations. “No, I’m not saying that. But be honest. You wanted me, too. Probably not as much as I wanted you, but you were kissing me and letting me touch you, and your hands were under my sweater. I thought it was obvious where we were headed. So you shouldn’t have—”
“Stop. Right. There.” He had thought that her voice sounded angry up to that point, but she had just given him a new benchmark. “I shouldn’t have stopped you if I became uncomfortable? Things had gone too far, so I’d lost the right to say no? It was my fault you were turned on, so I had no choice but to lie back and let you have your fun?” Tears filled her eyes and her voice was thick when she continued, speaking in a hushed tone. “You unimaginable bastard.”
“No, that’s not what I—”
“Get out of here, now.”
William shook his head, trying to clear it. “Lizzy, you completely misunderstood me. Let me explain.”
“You had your chance to explain. Now get out. I don’t want you here. And don’t call me Lizzy. My friends call me that.”
She flung the door open and stared at him, fury burning in her eyes. He considered refusing to leave until they resolved their differences. But he was tired of her unjust accusations and her irrational anger, and she wasn’t going to listen to reason tonight. “All right, I’ll go,” he said. “But I want to say something first.”
“You have ten seconds.”
“I don’t know why you’re so determined to put the worst possible spin on everything I say; I suppose that’s what you always do. But right now we’re tired, we’re emotional, and we’ve been drinking. Tomorrow we’ll be calmer and more clear-headed. I’ll come back tomorrow evening, and—”
She scoffed. “You think I’m ever letting you back into this apartment? Not a chance.” She planted her hands on her hips, her eyes two dangerous shards of green glass. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”
It occurred to him that the best proof of his feelings was that he loved her even now, when she was utterly irrational. Never seeing her again was unthinkable. He sighed and closed his eyes, his anger and frustration collapsing under a heavy weight of misery.
“All right. I’m going. But whether you believe it or not, I love you, and I hope you’ll change your mind once you calm down. When that happens, call me.” He tried to stifle one last word for the sake of his pride, but he couldn’t. “Please.”
His heart clenched at her icy tone of dismissal. “Good night, Lizzy.”
Her eyes narrowed at his intentional use of her nickname. He held her gaze, searching for even the smallest sign of hesitation or regret, but she stood still, cold and unmoving. He walked into the dingy hallway with heavy steps. The door slammed behind him, echoing with painful finality, and he was alone again.