Elizabeth tiptoed down the hall to the kitchen. She switched on the overhead light, squinting while her eyes adjusted to the brightness.
The refrigerator beckoned and she answered its call, foraging for a snack. She didn’t understand why she should be hungry at this hour of the night, especially not with her internal clock on New York time.
She had collapsed, breathless, into her seat on the plane only a few minutes before departure, but miraculously her luggage had arrived with her. Charlotte had met her at the airport as planned, and Jane had returned from Sacramento in time to help them consume a pitcher of margaritas at Charlotte’s favorite Mexican restaurant. Later, Elizabeth had settled into the second bedroom of Jane’s condo, which would be her home from now on.
Her eyes gleamed when she spotted a quart of Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream in the freezer. Had Jane remembered what went with it? She had; Elizabeth found a small, unopened jar of hot fudge sauce in the pantry.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
Elizabeth whirled, startled, and saw Jane standing in the doorway.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t. I was reading and I heard you leave your room.”
Jane looked perfect, of course, in a pink tank top and pink and gray plaid pajama pants. Her slightly tousled hair just added to her natural beauty. Elizabeth, meanwhile, was wearing one of her collection of nightshirts with ink stains, her hair no doubt resembling a fright wig. Beauty and the Beast, the Home Edition.
Jane sat at the table. “I’m glad you found the ice cream.”
“I can sniff out chocolate peanut butter ice cream at five hundred paces. It was sweet of you to stock up on my favorites.”
“I wanted you to feel at home. I’m so happy to have you here.”
Elizabeth heard the slight tremor in Jane’s voice. “I’m happy to be here. I’ve missed you, and I know you’ve had a hard time lately. I just wish I could have gotten here sooner.”
“I’ve been fine, Lizzy, really I have. But things will be even better now.”
“Want some ice cream?” Elizabeth started to rise from her chair.
“Stay put. I’ll get it.”
“Have you spoken to Charles recently?” Elizabeth asked. She hadn’t wanted to raise the subject at dinner, unsure of Jane’s emotional state.
“He’s only called that one time since he moved to LA.”
“I bet he’s regretting what he did by now.”
“I hope not.” Jane set the ice cream container on the counter and turned to face Elizabeth. “I want him to be happy.”
“But if he’s regretting it, maybe he’ll come back to you.”
Jane smiled sadly and shook her head. “I’ve accepted that it’s over. I’ll always love him, but we want different things.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m doing fine, Lizzy. I’ve been focusing on my law practice. And I even went on a blind date a few days ago. We had lunch.”
Jane returned to the table with her bowl of ice cream and sat down. “He was nice.”
“Nice? That’s all?”
“I don’t know,” Jane paused to swallow a spoonful of ice cream. “He’s a lawyer, a senior associate in a medium-sized firm here in town. He asked if I wanted to have dinner some time next week, and I said yes.”
“So you must have liked him.”
Jane shrugged. “He seems intelligent and interesting, and he’s good looking. But it wasn’t love at first sight.”
“That might be just as well. If you were wildly infatuated with this guy, I’d worry about it being a rebound thing.”
“What about you, Lizzy? Where did you leave things with William? Every time Charlotte tried to ask about him over dinner, you changed the subject.”
It was true. Elizabeth’s feelings were a jumble of conflicting impulses, and she hadn’t wanted to try to sort them out at a noisy restaurant.
“Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Jane asked gently.
“Yeah … I think so.”
Elizabeth described her stops at the Darcy house and the hospital while Jane listened with increasing concern.
“Poor William! How awful! And you never even found out what was wrong with him?”
“Some kind of heart problem; that’s all I know. The nurse said he would be fine; I was relieved to hear that, at least.”
“I wonder if Charles knows about this.”
“I bet he does. I saw Caroline Bingley in the hospital lobby.”
“Caroline was there? She didn’t mention anything about going to New York.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute. You’ve been in touch with Caroline? After the way she treated me?”
Jane hesitated. “I know she behaved badly toward you at the rehearsal dinner. But apparently she’s had a huge crush on William for years, and she rarely gets to see him. She had hoped to spend time with him that weekend, in fact. And she was terribly upset to learn that Charles had misled their father about the prenup. So when she noticed his interest in you, she went a bit overboard. She says she feels terrible about the way she behaved.”
“A bit overboard, you call it? She all but ordered me out of the courtyard so she could throw herself at him. And she switched the place cards and stole my place next to him at dinner.”
“She did? You know, I wondered how I managed to mess up the cards. Are you sure she did it?”
“William said he was sure. Besides, who else would have done it?”
“Bill Collins? He seemed happy to have you at his table.”
Elizabeth looked at Jane in astonishment. “Oh, come on.”
Jane burst out laughing. “I’m teasing, Lizzy. But he did seem to develop an interest in you that night. In fact, he called me a few days ago asking when you were due to arrive. I bet he’s going to ask you out.”
“Oh, great, something to look forward to,” Elizabeth said with a grimace. “But let’s get back to you and Caroline. Please tell me that you haven’t been letting her influence you.”
“I’m not naïve, Lizzy. But she’s always been kind to me, and she’s been especially nice since the … since that weekend.”
“That worries me,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t trust that woman.” Jane was too guileless for her own good sometimes.
“You only met her that one time.”
“Which was more than enough.”
Jane sighed. “All right, I know better than to try to sway you once you’ve made up your mind. But don’t worry, we’re just casual friends.”
“Yeah, well, be careful all the same.”
“I will. But we got off track; we were talking about William. I bet he’ll call you tomorrow.”
“That’s what I’m expecting … well, more like hoping.” Elizabeth twisted a lock of hair around her finger.
Jane carried their ice cream bowls to the sink. As she rinsed them, she asked, “What are you going to say when he calls?”
“If he calls, you mean. I’m going to apologize for turning into a crazed lunatic. But I’m also going to tell him things were moving too fast, he shouldn’t assume that he knows what a woman wants just because it’s what he wants. And if he wants us to stay connected, we need to take a step back and get to know each other better.”
Jane nodded. “That sounds perfect.”
“Except how are we supposed to do that when we’re three thousand miles apart? Why would he go to that kind of effort? It’s not like he has trouble getting women to notice him.”
“But there’s only one Elizabeth Bennet, and she’s worth all the others put together.”
“I think you’re a little biased,” Elizabeth said, smiling fondly at her sister.
“I bet William would agree; he seems to understand how special you are.” Jane paused, and her smile faded. “But he’s not the only one whose feelings matter. Do you care enough about him to try to make a long-distance relationship work?”
“The morning after the dinner at his house, I would have said yes. The next morning, I would have said no. And now ….” Elizabeth sighed and fell silent.
Jane waited for Elizabeth to continue. The silence in the room felt heavy, broken only by the low-pitched hum of the refrigerator.
“I just hope he calls soon,” Elizabeth said. “After that, we’ll see.”
Her first act on arriving home was to check the phone in the kitchen for messages. Her stomach did a somersault when she saw the message light flashing, but the call was from Charlotte, suggesting that they meet for dinner on Monday to celebrate Elizabeth’s first day on her new job.
Elizabeth followed the dark hallway to her bedroom. She collapsed on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. If he hadn’t called by now, he wasn’t going to call. She had no idea how long she lay there unmoving, but finally she was roused by Jane’s voice.
“Lizzy, why don’t you just call him?” Jane stood in the doorway to Elizabeth’s bedroom.
Elizabeth sat up. “Because I’ve already called him twice, visited him once, and written him a note, and he’s ignored me. Obviously he’s through with me.”
“I hate to bring this up, but maybe his health took a turn for the worse after you left. Maybe he’s been too sick to call.”
Elizabeth’s breath caught in her chest. “Don’t say that.”
“Why don’t you call the hospital and find out,” Jane said in a gentle tone.
Elizabeth hurried into the kitchen with Jane close behind her, and was soon connected to the hospital operator. She asked for the CCU; the nurse there would only say that he was not currently a patient in that unit.
Elizabeth hung up the phone and closed her eyes. It was probably good news; his transfer out of the CCU suggested that he was out of danger. But it also meant that nothing was preventing him from contacting her. All hope of hearing from him was now gone.
“So he must be doing better; at least that’s good news,” Jane said. “Maybe you should call him tomorrow. You could just ask how he’s doing, and explain that you’ve been concerned about him.”
“I can’t. I’m already on the brink of becoming Pathetic Stalker Chick.”
“Maybe he’s just waiting till he gets home to call you.”
“Why would he do that? He knows I visited him at the hospital, and he has my phone number out here. If he cared about me, wouldn’t he want to set my mind at ease? No. He’s decided I’m not worth the trouble. Either that, or I was right in the first place, and all he really wanted was sex.”
“I just can’t believe that.”
“I can. I’ve said it a million times. This is William Darcy. What would he want with an ordinary music teacher?” Elizabeth shrugged. “But it’s fine. I’m starting a new life, and whatever connection I had with him is in the past.”
“I just hate to see you unhappy.”
“I’m fine.” Elizabeth glanced at her watch. “I think I’ll go to bed now. I’m still getting over jet lag.”
Elizabeth quickly prepared for bed and slipped between the covers. Her eyes fell on the mystery novel sitting on her bedside table, the one she had taken on the plane. She opened it and gently removed an object that was pressed flat between the pages. It was the portion of the orchid’s stem that she had removed after damaging it in the taxi.
She cradled the flattened stem in her hand, memorizing its appearance while her fingers caressed what remained of three deep indigo blooms. Her mind traveled across the country to William, asleep in his bed at home, or perhaps in a hospital room, and she envisioned the orchid on a table near his bed. But perhaps it was back in the greenhouse, or gone altogether. Maybe he wanted it out of his life … just like me.
A tear splashed onto the stem, and then another. She angrily wiped her eyes. She had been fine before he walked into her life, and she would be fine now that he was gone. But not if she kept clinging to reminders of him like a sentimental fool.
She couldn’t throw the stem in the trash; her heart ached at the thought of it languishing at the bottom of a dumpster. But then her eyes fixed on the bedroom window. She opened it and reached through, dropping the stem. It fluttered out of sight into the darkness, toward the garden below.
William nodded at the nurse standing in the doorway. He followed her down the hall from Dr. Rosemont’s plush waiting room to an examination room.
“How are you feeling today?” the nurse asked.
“All right, I suppose. I’m glad to be out of the hospital.”
“I’m sure. You were just released yesterday?”
William nodded. He rolled up his shirtsleeve so the nurse could check his blood pressure. “I’m hoping it’s back to normal.”
The nurse checked, and then shook her head. “No, not yet, but I’m sure the doctor will discuss that with you. She’s going to need your shirt and trousers off.”
“My trousers?” he protested. “Isn’t she just going to listen to my heart?”
“She has to check your lower-body pulse and pressure. She’ll be with you shortly.”
The nurse left, and he heaved a sigh as he unbuttoned his shirt. He had been poked and prodded enough for a lifetime.
He was folding his trousers carefully along the crease when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in.”
Dr. Rosemont stepped into the room, a white lab coat covering her gray pantsuit. “Well, here’s my favorite concert pianist. How are you feeling?”
“How did you sleep last night?”
“I stared at the ceiling for hours. I guess I was missing that wonderful hospital ambience.”
“Give me a break. I suppose you’ve got nicer quarters at home, but most of my patients would have considered that suite you had an example of living large.”
She was right; as hospital rooms went, his suite in the hospital’s McKeen Pavilion had been very comfortable.
As the examination proceeded, Dr. Rosemont became businesslike, restricting her conversation to questions about his health. Finally, she was finished. “Get dressed and come down to my office. We need to discuss your test results.”
The nurse escorted William to the doctor’s office, attractively decorated in neutral shades. He surveyed the pictures on her walls and on the desk, most of which featured the doctor and her family in various exotic locales. The Rosemont family loved to travel, and she and William often compared notes about places they had visited.
At last, Dr. Rosemont strode briskly into the room and slipped off her lab coat. “Sorry you had to wait. All my appointments seem to be taking extra time today.” She sat down behind her desk, parked a pair of reading glasses with rainbow-stripe frames on the end of her nose, and opened a thick file folder. “William, I’m not going to beat around the bush. You did a foolish thing by ignoring your symptoms for so long. This has been getting gradually worse for months.”
William couldn’t defend his procrastination, so he remained silent.
“A few years ago we agreed on a schedule for blood pressure checks, EKG’s, and physical exams. But you haven’t been here in almost a year. You canceled your last two appointments, and my office manager tells me that when we contacted you to reschedule, you didn’t return our calls.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“William, you were seriously ill. You were, and still are, at great risk for a stroke. What if that happened? All those demands on your time would die down to a trickle if you were paralyzed on one side of your body. There aren’t too many compositions out there for one-handed pianists.”
He gritted his teeth, feeling a hot flash of fury at her blunt statement. “That was harsh.”
“Maybe so, but it’s a truth you have to face. A stroke could completely incapacitate you, or even kill you. Thirty or forty years from now, I want to see pictures of you looking wise and distinguished, still performing and being recognized as one of the greatest musical artists of our time. But that will not happen if you neglect your health, because you won’t live that long.”
“All right, you’ve made your point. I should have come to see you sooner. But I kept putting it off because ….” He paused, unsure how to explain it. “Never mind.”
“No, go ahead.”
“I thought my problem was the defective heart valve. I thought I was going to need open heart surgery.”
“So you thought if you ignored the problem, it would go away?”
“No. But if I ignored it, somehow it wasn’t real—the surgery I would need, the long recovery period, all of it. So I told myself it was just stress.” He shrugged. “At the time it made sense.”
“I get it,” she said in a gentler tone. “It’s tempting to deny a frightening scenario like that. But ignoring and delaying only made things worse. A stroke was only one of many possibilities. You could have had an aneurysm or a heart attack, or suffered permanent damage to your heart or kidneys.”
“But we caught it in time. None of that happened.”
She shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s not quite true. Your echocardiogram showed an abnormality in the left ventricle of your heart called ventricular hypertrophy. When the heart has to work extra hard to pump blood, which happened because of your constricted aorta, the muscles in the left ventricle can thicken.”
Cold dread washed over him. “What does that mean?”
“The thicker muscles make the heart less efficient. In fact, that’s probably causing the shortness of breath you’re still experiencing.”
“How is it treated?”
“Our top priority is to lower your blood pressure. It’s not responding to the medication you’re taking now, so I’m going to give you something stronger, plus some other medications. Beyond that, it’s pretty much the same thing as always: a healthy diet, lots of rest, and aerobic exercise to strengthen the cardiovascular system.”
Aside from resting, he had been doing those things for years. He relaxed back into his chair, profoundly relieved. “I’m ready to start running again whenever you give me the go-ahead.”
Dr. Rosemont shook her head. “You’re nowhere near ready for that. I should have said mild aerobic exercise. You need to start with walking. After the shortness of breath improves, you can gradually work your way back up to running. Oh, and speaking of exercise—”
He raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to continue.
“I don’t know what your personal situation is, and you don’t need to tell me, but you should abstain from sex until we get your blood pressure and shortness of breath under control.”
“Okay.” He stifled a sarcastic laugh. Not having sex—he was an expert at that.
She closed the file containing his test results. “The good news is that if you take proper care of yourself, your condition stands a good chance of reversing, in which case you’ll have little or no permanent damage.”
“How long will it take?”
“That’s impossible to predict, but it won’t happen overnight. You’re going to have to take this seriously and make your health your first priority. And you need to reduce the stress in your life.”
“That’s easy for you to say, but I have a full schedule. I can’t just cancel everything.”
“If you don’t take care of yourself, I’m afraid you’re going to have a stroke or a heart attack. Considering your family history, that’s not at all far-fetched.”
He winced. His father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather had all died of heart attacks while in their forties. “Okay. What do I need to do?”
“Until we get your blood pressure stabilized, I want to see you in my office twice a week. And I want you to stay in New York for the time being.”
He had been afraid of this. “Georgiana and I were planning to go to our vacation home at the end of the week. Wouldn’t long walks on the beach be good for me?”
“Remind me. Where is the house?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want you that far from a major medical center.”
That comment frightened William almost more than anything else she had said. “All right; we’ll postpone the trip to Pemberley. How long will I have to stay in town?”
“It depends on how quickly you respond to the medication. What do you have coming up in the next few weeks?”
“I’m supposed to go to Interlochen for two weeks in July.”
“I think you’d better cancel that.”
He sighed. “It’ll be the first summer in ten years I haven’t gone there, but they’ll understand. But in August, my performing obligations start to ramp up again.”
“Let’s discuss that a month from now.”
“But if my blood pressure is back down again—”
She raised a hand, stopping him in mid-sentence. “Let’s wait and see what happens before we talk about longer-term plans.”
Regardless of her pessimism, William was sure this intermission in his career would be short. A summer break didn’t sound so bad, even if he had to spend it in New York. Yes, a few weeks off and then things would return to normal.