“You’re not finished with your soup, are you?”
William glanced up at Mrs. Reynolds, who stood beside him eyeing his barely touched bowl. “Yes, I am. But it was delicious.”
After a pause during which he could feel her eyes boring into him, Mrs. Reynolds removed his bowl. He looked across the table at Richard and shook his head, sighing. It was like this at every meal.
Catherine de Bourgh had done most of the talking through the appetizer and soup courses, with occasional comments from Rose, Eleanor, or Robert whenever they could wedge in a word or two. Richard had been satisfied so far to sit observing the scene, directing an occasional smirk in William’s direction. Georgiana simply stared at her place setting. William had said only as much as courtesy demanded, spending most of his time restlessly analyzing different aspects of the plan to go to Los Angeles.
How different things would have been if Elizabeth had been there! He closed his eyes and imagined her sitting beside him, sharing a private smile or two at Catherine’s pompous statements and her incessant name-dropping. He saw his hand steal under the table to squeeze hers beneath the tablecloth, and he felt the warmth of her fingers entwined with his.
He opened his eyes and realized that Georgiana had spoken to him. A salad sat in front of him, though he didn’t recall its arrival. Around the table, six pairs of eyes studied him with expressions ranging from curiosity to alarm.
“Are you okay, Will?” Georgiana touched his arm. “Are you feeling sick?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m sorry, what were we talking about?”
“I was asking about your foundation’s new scholarship program,” Catherine said. “Your grandmother seemed to feel that I should hear more about it. But if you’re not interested in the dinner conversation—”
“Of course he is,” Rose interposed smoothly. “William, I mentioned the program to Catherine before dinner. I told her that you would fill in the details.”
“Ah. Well, yes, it’s intended to encourage young composers. We’re accepting applications from graduate students majoring in composition. They’ll be submitting samples of their work.”
“How many awardees will you select?”
“We haven’t decided yet; probably between five and eight.”
“And what will they receive?”
“A stipend to support their education for a year. We also plan to hold a concert featuring their work. We’ll probably produce a recording of the concert.”
“You should select some awardees who intend to compose for the piano. Then you could perform their compositions yourself.”
“Yes, that’s part of the plan.” William loved being a step ahead of Catherine. “There will be a special category for piano compositions.”
“I have students at the conservatory who will be interested in applying. I assume you’ll be assembling a selection committee?”
How he longed to reply, “No, we thought we’d pick some applications from the pile at random.” Richard would snicker and Georgie might even laugh, but Rose would be mortified. “Yes, of course.”
“You’ll be using Juilliard faculty, I suppose,” Catherine said, the word “Juilliard” sounding like the vocal equivalent of an eye roll. “You seem to think they are superior to faculty at other institutions, though I have never understood why.”
“I’m not certain yet who I’ll ask to serve.”
“I would be willing to serve on the committee, should you wish to take advantage of my considerable expertise. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I’ve chaired many such committees, and have often recruited luminaries from the music world to assist me. And I have a great affinity for composers. Lewis always said that I would have been an exceptional composer, had I chosen to pursue that path.”
Richard cleared his throat loudly. William glanced at his cousin, noting his unconcealed smirk.
Catherine turned her attention to her salad, leaving William free to re-immerse himself in his imagination, where Elizabeth’s company made the evening bearable. He scarcely noticed when Mrs. Reynolds arrived to remove the salad plates, shaking her head at William’s untouched food.
“What did I tell you, Will? The Dinner Party from Hell. The rest of that scotch is going to come in handy later tonight.”
William nodded. “Catherine knows how to make time stand still.” After dinner, the cousins had temporarily taken refuge in the garden behind the house.
“I have to hand it to Mom,” Richard said. “She figured out how to escape.”
“Do you think she was faking?” Eleanor Fitzwilliam had developed a severe headache near the end of dinner. She and Robert had departed soon afterwards.
“I don’t know. But if she was, I wish I’d thought of it first. I don’t think it would work if I tried it now. Oh, and then Gran let Georgie go upstairs to practice. Another good excuse I wish I’d thought of.”
“Practicing piano? I guess you’ve forgotten that you don’t play.”
“Is it too late to start?” Richard grinned. “But, no, my expertise lies down a different path.” He raised an eyebrow.
William smirked. “I’m surprised you think you need practice in that area. I thought you were already the maestro.”
“Indeed I am, old man, but only because I practice constantly, just as Catherine was advising Georgie to do.”
“You’re a role model for us all. But I’m surprised you’re so desperate to escape. You seemed to be enjoying yourself at dinner, snickering at Catherine.”
“I believe in taking pleasure wherever I can find it. And the only possible source of enjoyment was to mock every word that outrageous woman said. Silently, of course, to stay out of trouble with Gran.”
“Don’t you mean, to stay out of worse trouble than you’re already in.”
Richard shuddered. “Don’t remind me. The look Gran gave me when I walked into the dining room nearly burned a hole through my forehead.” Rose hadn’t said a word when Richard strolled nonchalantly into the house just after the others sat down to dinner, but the look in her eyes had spoken volumes.
“You asked for it,” William said, shaking his head. “You know how she is about punctuality.”
“It’s called being fashionably late, Will.”
William chuckled. “You should know by now that Gran disapproves of that particular fashion.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see how it goes. And speaking of being in trouble, I gather you’ve gone public with the Fitzwilliam Plan.”
“You mean about LA? Did one of them say something to you?”
“Mrs. R. pulled me aside after dinner. Wanted me to talk you out of it.”
“Did you tell her it was your idea?”
Richard cleared his throat. “I was going to—I know I said I would—but then I realized she’d probably poison my tea. She’ll forgive you for it; you’re The Boy Who Can Do No Wrong. Have they been rough on you?”
William shook his head. “Not so far, but they haven’t had time to mobilize the artillery yet.”
“Don’t let them talk you out of it.”
“I won’t,” William said with certainty. “I’m going in to get a glass of cognac. Want anything?”
“No, thanks. You coming back out?”
“As long as I don’t get trapped.”
William slipped through the doors from the garden into the empty library. He could hear Catherine offering Rose a stream of nonstop advice on the preservation of a tapestry hanging in the hallway outside the dining room. He tiptoed toward the small bar set up in the corner and poured a splash of cognac into a crystal glass. He was about to return to the patio when a voice behind him startled him.
“William, there you are. I need to speak with you.” It was Catherine, who had just entered the library with Rose close behind. Catherine seated herself majestically on the sofa and fixed a cold stare on William. He approached her, but he chose not to sit.
“Yes, Catherine?” he said, enjoying the feeling of looming over her.
“Sit down,” she snapped. “I can’t be expected to speak to you if I have to sit here craning my neck.”
William sat in a nearby chair, trying not to roll his eyes. “What do you want?” He knew that he sounded abrupt, but he didn’t have the patience to be ordered around by Catherine tonight.
“A few minutes ago, your grandmother told me that you had some absurd idea of going to Los Angeles to become a beach bum.”
William’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sure Gran didn’t say that.”
“I most certainly did not,” Rose interjected from across the room. From her tone, William suspected that Rose had had her fill of Catherine along with the rest of them.
“Not in so many words, but that’s how it sounded,” Catherine said. “William, I feel bound to advise you for your poor mother’s sake. She would be horrified to see you considering such a frivolous pursuit. You’re generally a serious, hard-working young man. That shiftless cousin of yours must have had something to do with this.”
“I beg your pardon.” William rose to his feet. His voice and the expression in his eyes would have chilled the blood of a lesser opponent. He did not permit outsiders to criticize his family members, however accurate the criticism might be.
“Don’t get huffy with me, young man. Sit back down this instant. Los Angeles! I’ve never heard anything so absurd. For you to waste your talents this way, even for a short time—it’s disgraceful.”
“I’m taking my work with me, Catherine. I’m not going to lie on the beach all day.”
“Then prove it. If you want to recuperate in California, come to San Francisco instead. You could become a temporary member of the faculty at the conservatory.”
William stared at her, speechless.
“It would be a perfect place from which to administer this new scholarship program. I’m sure several of our faculty members would be honored to serve on the selection committee. And that master class I hear you’re about to teach at Juilliard—if you enjoy that sort of thing, you could teach an occasional seminar for us, and you could work with some of our more advanced graduate students. And give a few recitals to keep your performing skills sharp.”
Rose, who was listening to the conversation from across the room, spoke again. “Catherine, have you forgotten that William is convalescing?”
“I’m not suggesting that he run a marathon,” Catherine huffed. “We’ll bring you in as our Artist in Residence for the fall semester. You can set your own schedule, according to your health restrictions, as long as you fulfill a few basic obligations. There would be no salary, but you’re certainly not in need of one.”
William’s heart almost pounded its way out of his chest. Two words, repeating in his head, drowned out everything Catherine was saying: San Francisco.
“What’s up, Will?” It was Richard, who had just come in from the garden.
William looked at him mutely, still gathering his thoughts, so Rose spoke for him. “Catherine has invited William to spend the fall semester as Artist in Residence at her conservatory.”
“So you’d go to San Francisco instead of LA? Interesting idea. But you’d have to give up the LA beaches and all those surfer girls. The beaches aren’t quite the same up north.”
“Of course that would be your primary consideration, Richard,” Catherine sniffed, her eyes glacial.
“You bet your ass it would,” Richard replied cheerfully. “Blondes in bikinis, versus working for you? I’d pick the bikinis every time; I’m kind of twisted that way. But, seriously, Will, you should consider her offer. I have a funny feeling you’d be happier in San Francisco.”
Catherine’s scowl faded as she absorbed the unexpected conclusion of Richard’s remarks. “I never thought I’d say this, but listen to your cousin, William. He’s giving you good advice for a change.”
“It’s an unaccustomed pleasure to agree with you, Catherine,” Richard said with an exaggerated bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a drink.”
Richard strolled away to the bar area, and William finally composed himself enough to speak. “I appreciate the offer, and it sounds like an excellent idea. But I need some time to think about it before I make any commitments.”
“You can take a day or two, but we’ll need to move quickly. The fall semester starts soon and there are so many arrangements to make. I’ll want to have Collins issue a press release immediately.”
“I’ll give you an answer before you leave New York.”
“Don’t pass up this opportunity, William. It’s the best way for you to stay active while you recuperate, and I owe it to your mother to look after you. In addition, I’m sure I don’t need to point out that it would give you and Anne a chance to spend time together.”
“I wish you’d bring Anne to New York someday,” Rose said. “I haven’t seen her in years. In fact, I thought you intended to bring her with you this time.”
“I considered it, but I was afraid the trip would be too much for her.”
Catherine departed soon after, citing plans for a late rendezvous with an important official from the Metropolitan Opera. William said a polite, if somewhat absent, good night and escaped to his sitting room, leaving Richard to fend for himself in the face of Rose’s disapproval. He had some thinking to do.
Shortly before midnight, William emerged from the elevator on the sixth floor and exited to the roof garden and the cool night air. He gazed up absently, only vaguely aware of the moon, which was partially obscured by clouds.
Richard had left a few minutes before after making a dent in the bottle of 50-year Macallan they had opened the previous night. William had abstained from the scotch; between a glass of wine at dinner and a cognac afterwards, he had consumed enough alcohol for one night. He knew that he hadn’t been good company for his cousin, but he couldn’t help it. Ever since Catherine had made her proposal, those two words had continued to reverberate in his head, silencing all other thoughts.
He knew that Catherine’s motivation in making the offer had nothing to do with honoring Anna’s memory. It would be an impressive coup for her conservatory to form an alliance with a musical artist of his stature. While the school was highly respected on the West Coast, it had yet to achieve the national reputation enjoyed by a handful of elite conservatories in the United States. The cachet lent by his residence would make a difference.
The idea offered a surprising number of advantages on his side as well. He had long thought that he would enjoy mentoring young artists, and he would now have that opportunity. Furthermore, as she had suggested, he could give occasional recitals without the added stress of traveling. And she was correct that he could draw on the conservatory’s faculty and other resources to advance the young composers’ scholarship program.
His eyes drifted across the garden to the table where he and Elizabeth had dined together less than two months ago. He remembered, for what seemed like the hundredth time, how lovely she had looked in the glowing candlelight, her eyes soft and warm as she smiled at him.
But what would she think if he showed up at the conservatory? Wouldn’t he seem to be chasing her, after she had told him she never wanted to see him again? Did he want her to think he was that desperate?
William walked to the table and sat down. He closed his eyes and she materialized, sitting across from him. She reached out to caress his hand, and her radiant smile warmed his heart … until he remembered that she was only a vision. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes, staring at the empty chair.
God help me, but I am that desperate.
If there was the slightest chance that he could change her mind, he had to try. And so he would go to San Francisco and risk the pain of being rejected … one more time.