Elizabeth hurried down the corridor toward the Ritz-Carlton’s Terrace Room. She paused just outside the door to smooth her dress. The heavy oak door flew open, nearly knocking her off her feet. Kitty and Lydia stumbled out into the hall, shrieking with laughter.
Elizabeth stepped back, mindful of the beer sloshing toward the rim of Lydia’s glass. “Where are you two going?”
“Oh, God, it’s so dull in there, we had to get out,” Lydia moaned. “One of the waiters told us about a party in the ballroom. We’re going to crash it.”
“You can’t just crash a private party.”
Lydia rolled her eyes and scoffed. “Who’s going to stop us? Come on, Kitty.”
“Hang on, Lyds. I want to talk to Lizzy for a minute.” Kitty hicupped and handed her glass to Lydia.
Elizabeth and Kitty exchanged a warm hug. “I hear you’re going to be working for Jane,” Elizabeth said.
Kitty reclaimed her glass and took a large gulp. She swallowed, blinking hard, and replied, “Yeah. Starting next week.”
“How are things in LA?” Elizabeth asked Lydia.
“Great! Fantastic parties, and I love going to the beach. What do you think of my tan?”
“I was talking about your acting career.”
“Oh, that. Auditions, agents, the usual.” Lydia took a large swallow from her glass.
“Did Mom see you with that beer?” Elizabeth asked. “You’re underage.”
“Oh, please. Mom doesn’t care. And the bartender didn’t ask. I just leaned forward so he could stare down my dress.”
Shaking her head, Elizabeth turned to back to Kitty. “Are you going to move up to the city?”
“Uh huh. I’m getting a place with some friends.” Kitty giggled and clutched Lydia’s arm. “You should come up and visit, Lyds. We could go clubbing, like we used to do before you moved to LA. Remember that night last summer, right before you left town?”
Lydia shrieked. “Oh, my God! That was crazy! Remember those guys who kept coming on to us, the ones who danced like robots?” She began to imitate them, waving her arms and jerking her body.
“Lydia, stop acting like such an idiot,” Elizabeth snapped. “And be careful, or you’re going to spill that beer on someone.”
Kitty burst out laughing. “She almost spilled it on that friend of Charles’s. You know, the tall guy who’s standing alone in the corner staring at everybody.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together. “You spilled a beer on William Darcy?”
“No.” Lydia extending the word into a lengthy syllable of indignation. “Kitty said ‘almost.’ But, hey, if I had spilled anything on him, I’d have been happy to lick it off. He’s a hunk, and I bet he’s, like, really good in bed.”
“What makes you say that?” The words tumbled out before Elizabeth could stop them.
Lydia snorted. “Oh, come on. Use your imagination. He plays the piano, doesn’t he?”
“Well, yeah!” Kitty giggled. “Mom talked and talked about him in the car on the way here, remember?”
“I wasn’t listening.” Lydia waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, he’s a musician. You know how they are. Artistic, emotional, get all worked up over things. Hot-blooded.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Elizabeth said, “but he seems pretty cold. I haven’t seen him get worked up over anything.”
Lydia eyed Elizabeth’s dress and smirked. “Probably because he didn’t see anything worth getting worked up over.”
“Lydia!” Kitty cried. “That was mean. Lizzy looks nice.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Lydia shrugged. “But, geez, Lizzy, you could show a little skin now and then.”
“You’re showing more than enough for both of us.” Elizabeth cast a disdainful glance at Lydia’s low-cut halter dress, which either displayed or clung to every curve of her body.
Kitty, who had been drinking her beer when Elizabeth spoke, snorted and began to cough.
“Well, don’t blame me if I collect all the hot guys tonight. We both have prime raw material.” Lydia glanced down at her ample display of cleavage and then stared pointedly at the far more modest neckline of Elizabeth’s dress. “But unlike you, I know how to use it.”
“Do you always have to be so crude?” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest.
Lydia stamped her foot and whirled to glare at Kitty. “Would you stop it with the coughing already?”
“I can’t help it; I inhaled some beer,” Kitty wheezed between coughs.
“Well, you’re getting on my nerves,” Lydia snapped.
“Are you okay?” Elizabeth asked, patting Kitty on the back. Kitty nodded, her eyes watering.
“But I was talking about His Studliness,” Lydia said in a breezy tone. “Since he plays the piano, he’d have good manual—what’s the word—dexter? Dextrose? Something like that?”
“Dexterity,” Elizabeth grumbled.
“Yeah, that. He’s good with his hands. And probably not just on the piano, if you catch my drift.”
Kitty, whose coughing had almost subsided, wheezed, “I see what you mean. Mmmmm!”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Are you quite finished?”
“No, I haven’t gotten to the best part yet.” Lydia’s eyes gleamed.
“I know I’m going to regret asking, but what’s the best part?”
“He’s tall. And he must have really long fingers, so he can play those fancy piano pieces.”
Elizabeth frowned at Lydia. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Duh! It means the rest of him is probably super-sized too.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Like a horse, If you know what I mean.”
Kitty squealed and exploded into a fit of giggles.
“Lydia!” Elizabeth gasped, her face flushing. “You are disgusting.”
Lydia shrugged. “Well, excuse me if I’m not a prude like you. Come on, Kitty, I need another beer. Maybe I’ll spill it in that Darcy guy’s lap. That would liven up the party!”
The girls skittered back to the ballroom, their giggles punctuated by tiny shrieks. Elizabeth took a deep breath, cleared her mind, and opened the door to the Terrace Room.
Unfortunately for her tenuous composure, the first person she saw was William. He stood alone in a corner, his fingers—his long fingers—encircling a glass of white wine. She froze in the doorway, mortified to feel her cheeks growing warm. His eyes locked with hers briefly, and then he withdrew his gaze, staring impassively across the room.
William felt an ache in his chest as he watched Elizabeth cross the room to join Jane. How could he have ever thought Elizabeth the less attractive of the two sisters? He imagined himself striding over to join the conversation, dazzling her with his intelligence and wit. But his feet refused to move.
His headache was back, and worse than ever. He placed his empty wine glass on a nearby table, retrieved a small package of ibuprofen from his pocket, and dry-swallowed four tablets.
Energy seemed to crackle around Elizabeth, whereas William stood like a leper in his solitary corner. Usually the William Darcy Magnetic Field more than compensated for his inability to make small talk, but tonight everyone seemed immune.
He had retreated to his corner soon after arriving, and had stood sipping a glass of mediocre white wine and glancing incessantly toward the door. He hadn’t realized he was watching for Elizabeth until she appeared. Fortunately, years of practice had allowed him to maintain a neutral expression.
Unfortunately, her family had been all too visible during her absence. He turned a disdainful stare toward the bar, where two of Elizabeth’s sisters flirted shamelessly with the bartender. One was nearly popping out of a dress that left as little as possible to the imagination. The other was more appropriately attired, but both were shrieking, giggling, and guzzling their drinks. His sister Georgiana would never behave that way.
Their mother wasn’t much better. Mrs. Bennet sat at a table a short distance away, chattering nonstop with Jane’s aunt. From the conspiratorial tilt of their heads and their speculative glances in his direction, he was sure they were gossiping about him.
He closed his eyes and massaged his forehead again. The ibuprofen wasn’t working yet. When he opened his eyes, he saw Charles approaching.
“Hey, Will. You okay?”
“I’m just tired.”
“Long day, huh?”
“Why didn’t you tell me more about Elizabeth this afternoon?”
Charles blinked. “What?”
“Elizabeth teaches at a college in New York, she’s finishing a master’s degree in music, and she has the voice of an angel. From what little you told me, I expected a no-talent, starstruck teenager.”
“I tried to tell you the rest, but you were too busy calling me an idiot for thinking that you might like her.”
“You shouldn’t have been surprised that I didn’t want you playing matchmaker.” He lowered his voice and continued, “But I said some things this afternoon that I wouldn’t have said if I’d been better informed. And Elizabeth overheard our conversation.”
Charles nodded. “Jane told me.” A speculative light gleamed in his eyes. “Hmmm … apparently I wasn’t an idiot after all.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t such a crazy idea that you might like Elizabeth. Obviously you do.”
William made sure his impassive mask was in place before answering. “Yes, I like her. I like Jane. I like their friend Charlotte. What’s your point?”
Charles’s crooked grin widened. “No wonder you offered to hang around the church after the rehearsal and give her a ride.”
“I was doing my duty as best man, trying to help you.”
“Then I guess it wouldn’t interest you to know that Jane put you and Elizabeth next to each other at dinner.”
“I know,” William answered quickly—too quickly, he realized.
“Busted!” Charles hooted. “You checked the place cards on the tables, didn’t you?”
William favored Charles with an imperious stare, silently gathering his tattered dignity around him.
“Why not just admit that you’re attracted to her?” Charles asked. “I mean, what’s not to like? She’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s beautiful, especially the way she looks tonight. I mean, this afternoon she looked nice, but she just about knocked my eyes out of their sockets when I saw her at the church.”
“Mine too,” William muttered.
“Then why not go talk to her instead of standing here like a statue?” Charles asked, clapping William on the back. “I need to go see how Jane and my parents are getting along.”
As if in answer, the ballroom door opened and Charlotte Lucas strolled in. Elizabeth hurried forward to greet her friend. Elizabeth and Charlotte approached the bar, and with great intrepidity William headed there as well.
“Hi, William,” Charlotte said with a warm smile.
He returned her greeting and then said hello to Elizabeth, whose only reply was a nod. At least he could talk to Charlotte. “Was your bridesmaid’s dress ready?”
“Yes. I got there right before they closed. Did you two have a nice ride in the Z3?” Charlotte asked.
“William risked life and limb and let me drive,” Elizabeth said with mock gravity.
“So that means you lost your sports-car virginity, right? And William did the honors.” Charlotte grinned, a wicked gleam in her eyes.
Of course Charlotte was referring to Elizabeth’s first ride in a sports car, but his mind flashed to his earlier vision of ravishing her on the hood of the Z3. A sudden wave of heat coursed through his body, and he stared blindly across the room, swallowing hard.
Elizabeth shuddered. “I don’t know how you drink that vile stuff. Come on, let’s sit down somewhere and catch up.”
“See you later, William,” Charlotte said.
He sighed and watched them walk away, his arms dangling awkwardly at his sides. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he slunk back to his corner.
“Okay, what’s going on with you and William Darcy?”
Elizabeth stared at Charlotte. “What are you talking about?”
Charlotte nodded knowingly. “Come on, Liz, we’ve known each other since we were thirteen. You can’t fool me.”
“Seriously, nothing is happening.”
“Then why couldn’t he take his eyes off you at the church? Or at the bar a minute ago? Or right now?” Charlotte tipped her head toward William’s corner.
“If he’s looking at me at all, it’s to find fault. You’re the one he likes.”
“Bullshit,” Charlotte said succinctly.
“And it looked like the feeling was mutual earlier, at the church. You were certainly enjoying flirting with him.” Elizabeth hadn’t meant to sound so harsh.
Charlotte nodded, wearing a sheepish grin. “He’s sexy as hell, and when I found out he knew about 17th century Dutch art—well, you know what a turn-on that is for me. But, Liz, he’s got it bad for you.”
“Oh, come on. This is William Darcy we’re talking about. You know, the one Newsweek called ‘Classical Music’s Sex Symbol’. What would he want with me?”
“Knock it off, Liz. You’re fun to be around, you’ve got a voice that could melt a heart of stone, and you’ve got the kind of curves that drive men crazy. Though the way you usually dress, nobody would know it.”
“Don’t start. I already got a lecture from Jane earlier today.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to pile on.” Charlotte paused and sipped her drink. “I just wish you’d stop building walls to keep men out.”
“Just because I choose not to dress like Lydia doesn’t mean I’m building walls. I have a good life and I’m happy.”
“Hmmm.” Charlotte obviously wasn’t convinced. “When was the last time you had a boyfriend?”
“The fact that we have to agree on a definition is bad enough. But how about this: a guy you went out with at least four times. Notice that I’m setting the bar pretty low.”
Elizabeth sipped her wine slowly before she replied. “I’ve been busy lately, working an extra job so I could afford this trip.”
“Answer the question. How long has it been?”
“Well … okay, a year or so.” Elizabeth studied her wine glass. “Maybe more.”
“And how long did you go out with him?”
“About a month.”
“How long was it before you slept with him?”
“I didn’t,” Elizabeth replied, allowing a hint of defiance to creep into her voice.
“He didn’t want to have sex with you?”
“Yes, he did. That’s when I stopped seeing him.”
“Because he wanted to go to bed with you?”
“Yes, and I wasn’t ready. Let’s change the subject.”
“Not yet. This is important. How long has it been since you slept with a guy?”
“None of your business,” Elizabeth snapped.
“Look, Liz, you know I’m not usually one to pry, but Jane and I are worried about you. Jane’s too nice to force you to talk, but I’m not. So talk. How long has it been?”
Elizabeth stared at Charlotte for a moment before answering. “A while.”
“How long? Please tell me it hasn’t been since—”
“It’s been a long time,” Elizabeth repeated with finality. “And I’m not going to be any more specific than that.”
“Look, I know you’re comfortable having casual affairs. I’m not. It’s been a long time since I met a guy I cared about as more than a friend. And when I did ….” Elizabeth’s voice trailed off and she looked down at the table, sighing quietly.
“I know,” Charlotte said gently. “But that was a long time ago. And there are some good men out there, you know.”
“Maybe, but I can’t seem to tell the good ones from the creeps.”
“So you’ve taken an oath of celibacy? That’s unnatural.”
Elizabeth sighed. “To me, it would be unnatural to rush into a physical relationship with someone I just met.”
“Fair enough. But sometimes don’t you want to just grab the closest guy, throw him down, and jump his bones?”
Elizabeth laughed, breaking the tension. “Yes, Char, I think about sex sometimes. But it’ll have to wait till I find someone I love and who loves me, someone I can trust.”
“How are you going to find someone if you keep avoiding men?”
“I’m not avoiding men. I have lots of guy friends.”
“Friends are great. But you need to get laid.”
“And I suppose you’re going to make it your mission to find me a likely candidate?”
“Mission accomplished. William Darcy, Classical Music’s Sex Symbol. Excellent potential there, I think.” Charlotte raised her eyebrows suggestively.
“You’re as bad as Lydia. Earlier she was pointing out all the reasons why William was probably, and I quote, good in bed.”
Charlotte nodded. “She’s not wrong. I can see him being a virtuoso in more places than concert halls. And I bet Lydia made an off-color remark about the long fingers.”
Elizabeth stared at Charlotte, shaking her head. “I don’t know which of you has the dirtier mind.”
“Well, I’d like to think that I do. I have a reputation to uphold. But say what you will about Lydia, she knows a thing or two about men. More than you do, that’s for sure. Maybe you should conduct a hands-on investigation and find out if she and I are right about William.”
Elizabeth scoffed. “Even if he had the slightest interest in me, which he doesn’t, I think he’s a jerk.”
“Oh, please. Tell it to someone who didn’t get dragged to every concert he gave those two summers at Interlochen. You’ve had a massive crush on him forever.”
“Had. Past tense. That was before I met him. Look at him over there, Mr. Stuck-Up, too exalted to talk to any of us.”
“Liz, he came over to talk to us, and you blew him off. He seems charming to me.”
“To you,” Elizabeth snapped. “You’re closer to his social level. You’re not an ‘under-employed chorus girl’ like me.”
“Whoa, you lost me there. What are you talking about?”
Elizabeth told Charlotte the story of the airport encounter with William, and went on to repeat his comments in the garden.
By the end of the story, Charlotte was laughing merrily. “Well, I’ll give him credit,” she said, shaking her head. “Most people can’t cram their feet that far into their mouths without choking. I know it probably wasn’t funny at the time, but in retrospect—”
“It’s still not funny.”
“Wow. He’s gotten under your skin, and in record time.”
Elizabeth brushed off Charlotte’s remark, continuing with her catalog of grievances. “And when I arrived at the church today, he was unbelievably rude. I walked up to him and he just stared at me. I practically had to kick him in the shins to get him to say anything. But he had no problem getting out the comment that I looked old.”
“He said you looked old?” Charlotte frowned. “No, he couldn’t have said that.”
“He informed me that I looked old, compared to earlier in the day. As though suddenly lots of wrinkles were showing.”
“Liz, give the poor guy a break. I bet I know what he meant. What were you wearing this afternoon? A big, baggy shirt and jeans, hair in a pony tail? No make-up? And a backpack loaded down with books?”
“A skirt, not jeans,” Elizabeth shot back. “And eye shadow wasn’t exactly a priority at four o’clock this morning when I got up. So what?”
“Dressed like that, you look like you’re sixteen. Whereas, tonight you look like a grown-up. That’s probably all he meant.”
“Nonsense. Charles knew how old I was, and he would have told William. Besides, after that—”
“There’s more?” Charlotte propped one elbow on the table. “Let’s hear it.”
Elizabeth paused, assembling her thoughts. “Okay, I admit, a few times I’ve noticed something about him. Like there’s a real person under all that arrogance. Someone I might even like. And when we went out to the car, that’s the way he was at first. Polite, and kind of sweet. And I think he was flirting with me.”
Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “I sense there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
“But then he got in the car and it was like he flipped a switch and turned back into an arrogant jerk. He had the nerve to tell me I had wasted my time ‘settling’ for Broadway, when I should have been an opera singer. He seemed to think it was a compliment, believe it or not.”
Charlotte’s glass of scotch froze on its way to her lips. “Wow. I’ve been feeling a little sorry for him so far, but that’s pretty bad.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Elizabeth said in a tight voice. “To think he was my yardstick for the perfect man for all these years.”
“So how did you react? I bet he was missing some vital body parts by the time you got through with him.”
Elizabeth sighed loudly, shaking her head. “I promised Jane I’d be polite for the weekend, so his body parts are intact. But you should see the bite marks on my tongue.”
Charlotte chuckled, shaking her head. “Okay, I admit, I can see why you’re not ready to hop into bed with him quite yet.”
“Quite yet?” Elizabeth’s laugh was harsh even to her own ears. “Why would I ever want to ‘hop into bed’ with a jerk like that?”
“For a guy that sexy, it would still be worth it. I mean, if you gagged him, he couldn’t talk. Ooh … William Darcy in bondage … and very little else.” Charlotte closed her eyes, a blissful smile on her face. “Oh, yeah, I’m liking that mental image.”
“Enjoy any mental image you want,” Elizabeth retorted. “But leave me out of your plans. I think I can safely promise you never to share a bed with William Darcy.”