William thought the rehearsal would never end. That ridiculous bore, Collins, kept asking absurd questions, apparently forgetting that he wasn’t the one giving the bride away. As for William, he seemed to have no control over the direction of his gaze. His eyes rarely strayed from Elizabeth.
But he was more concerned about the direction of his thoughts. In his imagination, he abandoned his place beside Charles and approached Elizabeth. She greeted him with a warm smile, and he drew her into his arms, feeling the warmth and softness of her body against his. He lowered his head, tasting her soft lips. Her arms twined around his neck, and she pressed herself against him, moaning. Fire raced through his body, and his hand slid up her torso until it reached—
He was mortified to feel stirrings which, if allowed to continue, would put him in an awkward situation. He exhaled a loud breath, gritted his teeth, and forced his eyes away from Elizabeth.
Just as the rehearsal ended, a shrill voice echoed through the church. “Jane! Jane! We’re here!”
A middle-aged woman with short bleached-blonde hair came puffing up the aisle, the echo of her clattering footsteps filling the church. “I’m so sorry we’re late, Jane, dear,” Mrs. Bennet panted, enfolding her daughter in a hug.
“It’s fine, Mom. Was traffic bad?”
“What? Oh, no, traffic was fine. Lydia was out visiting some friends, and the dear girl just lost track of time. Of course we couldn’t leave without her. Jane, my love, you look beautiful! Doesn’t she, Charles?”
“She certainly does, as always.”
Mrs. Bennet reached out to Charles, who embraced her with composure that William knew he couldn’t have equaled. Then she scanned the room with anxious eyes. “Where are your parents?”
“They’re going to meet us at the hotel. They should be here—”
Mrs. Bennet interrupted. “Lizzy! There you are!”
“Hello, Mom.” Elizabeth went to her mother and hugged her.
“You look nice, dear. You can be so attractive when you want to be. Not half as lovely as Jane, of course, but you’re a pretty girl when you make the effort.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together and looked away. William felt a pang of sympathy at the injustice of the comparison. He was trying to devise a response that would compliment Elizabeth without sounding foolish when Charles spoke up.
“All of your daughters are beautiful, Mrs. Bennet. And I’m so lucky that one of them is going to spend her life with me.” He kissed Jane gently.
“Oh, Charles, you are such a dear. Isn’t he, Andrew?”
A man of average height, his dark hair sprinkled liberally with gray, made his way up the aisle as he answered. “I didn’t hear what you said, Francie, but after thirty years of marriage, I know my best bet is to agree.”
William’s lips twitched. He could see where Elizabeth got her sense of humor.
Mr. Bennet’s eyes landed on Elizabeth, and he immediately came to her side and embraced her. “It’s wonderful to see you, Lizzy.”
“Hi, Dad,” Elizabeth whispered. “I’ve missed you.”
Greetings and introductions proceeded, slowed considerably by Bill Collins’s long speeches and Mrs. Bennet’s rapid-fire babbling.
“Oh, Mr. Darcy, I’ve been so looking forward to this! To have a celebrity at my little girl’s wedding! And for her husband to have such a prominent best man! My friends can’t wait to see you at the wedding tomorrow; I’ve told them all that you’ll be there! You will play at the reception, won’t you? You simply must! I’ve promised all my friends that they’ll hear you play.”
William stepped away and folded his arms over his chest. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Bennet,” he said stiffly, “but Charles and I decided that I won’t be performing. I seldom play at private parties.”
“Although Mr. Darcy is not to play tomorrow,” Bill Collins observed, “I consider it a great honor to serve as Elizabeth’s accompanist at the wedding.”
“That’s so kind of you, Mr. Collins,” Mrs. Bennet answered. “I’m glad that at least some of Charles’s musician friends don’t consider themselves too important to play for my daughter’s wedding.” She glared at William and sniffed.
“Mom, where are Kitty and Lydia?” Elizabeth asked.
Mrs. Bennet craned her neck, surveying the church. “Where are those girls? Andrew, do you know where they’ve gone?”
“Last I saw them, they were in the parking garage ogling a sports car. A red BMW.”
“The Z3!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I saw it too. Great car!”
William smiled. “It’s mine. I rented it for the weekend.”
“It’s yours? Really?” Elizabeth’s eyes danced. “Somehow I never imagined you behind the wheel of a sports car.”
Charles laughed. “Will? He’s the original speed demon.”
“Charles, stop exaggerating.”
“I bet it’s fun to drive,” Elizabeth said.
William heard a wistful note in her voice. “You’re welcome to try it out this weekend, if you can drive a stick shift.”
“Oh, I’d love that!” For a delicious moment her eyes smiled into William’s.
“Jane, look at the time,” Charles said in an agitated tone. “We need to get over to the hotel. My parents will be arriving soon.”
“Of course,” Jane said, “let’s get going. Lizzy, are you ready?”
“I can’t. Bill and I still have to run through ‘Ave Maria.’”
“But we have to get going,” Charles said. He frowned briefly and then glanced at Bill Collins. “Bill, could you give Lizzy a ride to the hotel?”
“I wish I could,” Bill answered, his eyes like a basset hound’s, “but Jim drove me, and his bass is in the back seat, and the trunk is full of music books and amplifiers and cables and other equipment. Please accept my deepest apologies.”
“I’d wait for you, Liz,” Charlotte said, “but I have to get to the bridal shop to pick up my dress before they close.”
“I have an idea,” Jane said. “I’ll ride with Charles and leave my car for Lizzy.”
Charles shook his head. “I rode with William, and he has a two-seater.”
“Charles, why don’t you ride over with Jane?” William suggested. “I can wait and give Elizabeth a ride.”
“Perfect! Thanks, Will.” Charles took Jane’s arm and led her toward the church doors. “Let’s all get out of here so Lizzy and Bill can have some peace and quiet.”
Slowly, the sanctuary emptied, until no one remained but Lizzy, Bill Collins, Jim Pennington, and William. With a smug look directed at William, Bill Collins sat down at the piano and played a few fast scales. William felt as though he had been challenged to a duel. Was he supposed to push Collins off the bench and play the same scales, only faster?
Elizabeth stood beside the piano. She nodded to Bill, who began to play the introduction to “Ave Maria.”
William’s heart stuttered when she began to sing. Her voice was sweet and clear, and she invested the plaintive melody with deep emotion. Her face, transfixed with joy, was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. He recalled the Sirens of Greek mythology, whose beautiful voices lured sailors to jump off their ships and swim towards the Sirens’ island, or to steer their ships too close to the rocks. The result in either case was disaster.
Disaster, indeed. They came from different worlds—too different.
Too soon, the final chords of the accompaniment echoed through the church. William walked slowly toward the piano, where Elizabeth and Bill were discussing the timing of one section of the song. “Are you ready to go?” he asked her, pointedly ignoring Bill.
“Oh, but wouldn’t you like to go through it once or twice more?” Bill asked. “I want to make sure I perform perfectly for you.”
She shook her head. “No, I think it went fine. You did a wonderful job; thank you so much.”
Bill’s smile was infuriatingly smug. “It was my pleasure, and I look forward to our performance tomorrow. I do apologize for being unable to drive you over to the dinner; I hope you understand and can forgive me.”
“No problem,” William responded smoothly, delivering a smug glance of his own. “I’m handling it.” En garde.
“Are you a sports car fanatic?” William asked, intrigued.
“I suppose so, in theory at least. I’ve never ridden in one, but I’ve always imagined it.” Her eyes shone as she gazed at the car.
He smiled. “That’s about to change. Shall I leave the top down?”
“Oh, yes, please!”
“Are you sure? Your hair may suffer from the wind.”
“I don’t care. I want the full experience.”
It occurred to him that the other women he knew would have given their hair top priority. And most were far too jaded to get excited about anything. He was surprised to find her childlike enthusiasm—a sign of her lack of sophistication—so endearing. “In that case ….” He held out the car keys.
Her eyes widened. “You were serious about letting me drive?”
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
She stared at the keys for a moment, frowning. “There’s just one thing.”
“I’ve driven a stick, but it’s been a long time. And this is a six-speed; I’ve never driven one of those. So maybe ….”
“Are you losing your nerve?” He quirked an eyebrow. She answered his challenge with an impudent smile and snatched the keys from his hand. He chuckled and opened the driver’s door for her.
William felt a blend of relief and excitement. He was flirting with her, and she seemed to be flirting back. Their shared interest in the sports car had allowed him to relax. It was the same in his profession. As long as he could talk about music, he was confident and articulate, but in other types of conversations he found it much more difficult to speak.
When Elizabeth sat down in the driver’s seat, her dress rode up, revealing several inches of her smooth thighs. His eyes locked on the provocative sight, and his imagination screeched into overdrive. He saw himself pulling her out of the car and setting her on its hood. He yanked her into his arms, raining hot kisses down her throat. She flung her arms around his neck, writhing against him as—
By sheer force of will, he had stopped himself from fantasizing about her in the church, but this time it was even more difficult to slam the brakes on his vivid imagination. He walked awkwardly around the car and slid gingerly into the passenger’s seat.
Elizabeth smiled at William as he sat down beside her. She was intrigued by the flirtatious sports car enthusiast who had replaced the grim man at the wedding rehearsal. But instead of returning the smile, he looked away, staring straight ahead. His posture was oddly stiff, his arms crossed over his lap, and she saw the muscles of his jaw working. It appeared that Mr. Hyde was back.
The car lurched a few times as she experimented with the unfamiliar six-speed transmission, but soon they were moving smoothly down the road. She glanced at him, noting that he looked more relaxed now. Had he been that nervous about her driving? After it was his idea?
“A stick shift in San Francisco can be pretty scary,” she observed after a few minutes of awkward silence.
He nodded. “You have to plan ahead on some of the hills. You’re doing well for someone who hasn’t driven a stick in a while.”
“It’s a great car. How fast have you driven it?”
“Not too fast so far. I’m planning to take it out for a drive early Sunday morning before my flight and see what it can do.”
Another awkward silence followed, broken at last when he said, “Your solo was beautiful.”
“Thank you. But it’s such a wonderful piece, it practically sings itself. I can’t take the credit.”
“I’m surprised you settled for Broadway music, when you seem to have the talent for an operatic career.”
“Settled?” she repeated, shooting a cool glance at him.
“Not all singers are good enough for opera, and those who aren’t have little choice but to pursue Broadway or popular music. But with your talent, you could have done so much more.”
“Thank you,” she snapped. She clutched the steering wheel, stifling the indignant tirade that threatened to spill from her lips.
“My mother was an opera singer,” he said, his voice warm. “In Italy. That’s where I was born. But when she and my father and I moved back to the United States, she had to give it up.”
William wore an intense expression she couldn’t identify. “You look fine to me,” he murmured in a deep voice.
She shrugged. “Well, thanks for letting me drive the car. That’s one of my fantasies come to life.”
She saw his eyes flare at her words, but neither knew nor cared why. “I’m going to the ladies’ room to try to rescue my hair,” she said in a breezy tone. “I’m sure I’ll see you at dinner.”
William watched her walk away, her hips swaying gracefully, and he finally released the groan he had stifled ever since she had preceded him into the church before the rehearsal.
Plainly stated, Elizabeth Bennet captivated him. He admired her talent. Her intelligence and quick wit intrigued him. As for her physical assets …. He shook his head with a rueful smile.
Their ride together in the car had gone well, once his initial embarrassment over his fantasies had subsided. He had even found an opportunity to compliment her talent, hoping to soften the sting of his earlier remarks. The remainder of the weekend would be much more pleasant, now that her opinion of him must have improved.
And then what?
He didn’t know. He only knew that he was looking forward to finding out. Humming “Ave Maria” under his breath, he pocketed the valet parking claim check and strode into the hotel, an uncharacteristic spring in his step.