William stepped out of the shadows and onto the deck surrounding the pool. Elizabeth stared at him, one hand pressed to her chest. “William! What are you doing here?”
“I told you. We need to talk.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“I saw you leave the ballroom. You weren’t on the terrace, so I followed the path, and ….” He shrugged.
She sighed. “I’m sorry; it was rude of me to leave while you were playing. I just … I needed some air.”
“And you had to come all the way down here to find some?”
There was a hint of a smile in his voice, but Elizabeth was in no mood for jokes. She crossed her arms over her chest and leveled a challenging stare at him. “I thought other people might come out onto the terrace once you were done playing, and I needed to be alone for a few minutes.”
He stepped closer to her, his eyes locked on hers. “Why did you need to be alone?”
”What difference does that make?”
“Did it upset you that I played the Intermezzo?” he asked softly.
“Of course not. Why would that upset me?” She forced her hands to stop smoothing the wrinkles from her skirt.
He sighed and looked away. “Do you want me to go?” he asked in a low voice.
“It’s up to you. You said you wanted to talk.”
They stood facing each other, both glancing around the pool area. Elizabeth rubbed her arms, trying to warm them.
William removed his tuxedo jacket. “May I?”
Elizabeth nodded, and he draped the jacket around her shoulders. “Thank you.”
“It’s like the rehearsal dinner,” Elizabeth said, primarily to fill the uneasy silence. “It was cold outside, and you lent me your jacket then, too.”
He nodded, his eyes on the distant city lights. “It seems like a long time ago.”
“So much has happened since then.”
“Elizabeth—” He stopped abruptly and studied his shoes. When he raised his eyes to her face, she was astonished by the deep sadness in his expression. “Earlier, you asked if we could be friends. I don’t think we can.”
The tears Elizabeth had banished threatened to return. “I really blew it that night, didn’t I?”
“What do you mean?”
“I was horrid to you. I should never have said all those hateful things.”
“But you were right about … about some of it.”
“No, it was my fault that you got the wrong impression. What were you supposed to think, after I let you into the apartment late at night, and after the way we were kissing and … and touching each other. Of course you assumed that we were going to sleep together.”
William shook his head in a vehement gesture. “Don’t blame yourself. I knew you were uncomfortable, but I ignored it because it interfered with what I wanted. Every time I sensed that you were about to send me home, I did everything in my power to wear down your resistance.”
“I’m responsible for my own behavior. But I need to know. Was I right? Was sex all you wanted from me?”
His eyes darkened. “After all this time, you still believe that?”
“I don’t know what else to think. You say you don’t blame me for that night, but you never called me after that.”
A muscle in William’s jaw twitched, his brow lowered. “You’re complaining because I didn’t call you?”
“I’m not complaining. I’m stating a fact.”
“You told me you never wanted to see me again.”
“But I didn’t mean it. I regretted it the next morning.”
“And I was supposed to know which things you meant, and which you didn’t?” William squared his shoulders and folded his arms over his chest.
“No. You were supposed to call me back so I could explain.”
“And risk subjecting myself to another round of character assassination?”
“It should have been obvious that I wasn’t going to do that.”
“To a clairvoyant, perhaps,” he said, his tone resentful. “It wasn’t remotely obvious to me.”
Elizabeth glared at him. “Well, then, I suppose you’re right. Obviously, we can’t be friends. And perhaps now you should go back to the house. Catherine and Anne are probably looking for you.”
William seemed to deflate, his shoulders slumping. “Wait. This isn’t how I wanted this to go.”
“Well, guess what? You can’t always have what you want. You came down here to tell me that you don’t want to have anything more to do with me. And you thought it was so important to tell me to get lost that you followed me out here to do it. How did you think I’d react?” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Did you think I’d thank you for whatever crumbs you deigned to toss in my direction?”
“Of course not. Let me explain—”
“I don’t need an explanation,” Elizabeth said sharply, her teeth clenched. “I’ve got the basic idea already.”
“No. I’m going back to the house. Feel free to stay out here if you want, though I imagine Catherine will have the bloodhounds on your trail before long. After all, we wouldn’t want to keep Anne waiting.” She hated the spiteful tone that had crept into her voice.
“Please don’t go. You don’t understand—”
“You’re absolutely right,” Elizabeth snapped, her hands on her hips. She felt her control slipping away but she didn’t care. “I don’t understand why you can’t even agree to say a cordial hello to me in the hallways at school. I don’t understand why you treated me like a stranger in the receiving line tonight. And most of all, I don’t understand how you could play the Intermezzo for Anne de Bourgh and ruin one of my most beautiful memories.” She turned her back and stared into the darkness, determined not to let him see her cry.
He inhaled sharply and said in a hushed voice, “Elizabeth, does this mean—”
She whirled to face him. “Yes, it means I lied. I hated that you played the Intermezzo. That evening at your house was perfect, and I’ll never forget it. I couldn’t bear to hear you playing it for another woman, and seeing proof that the evening didn’t mean to you what it meant to me.”
“Elizabeth—” William took a sudden step toward her, a peculiar light in his eyes, but she backed away, out of reach.
“Don’t worry,” she continued, her voice tinged with bitterness. “I won’t call you or bother you, or even say hello when I see you. Unlike Caroline Bingley, I can take a hint. I caught on pretty quickly after you ignored my phone messages back in June. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to the house and find Jane. It’s time for us to go back home where we belong.”
She tried to brush past William, furious with herself for allowing tears to spill from her eyes, but he grabbed her arm and stopped her. “What do you mean, I ignored your phone messages?” he asked.
“You know perfectly well what I mean.” She yanked her arm from his grasp and tried to walk around him.
He stepped sideways, blocking her path. “No, I don’t. Please tell me.”
“Don’t play games with me. I know you couldn’t call me at first because you were in the hospital. But afterwards, you still didn’t call. And you had my number in San Francisco, so don’t say you didn’t know how to reach me. You just didn’t want to talk to me. So, fine, let’s not talk. If you’ll get out of my way so I can go back to the house, we can start not talking right now.”
“I can’t let you go,” he said, staring at her with a bewildered frown. “Not until you explain about the phone messages.”
“The least you could have done was to call me just to let me know how you were doing. You had every right to be angry with me, but I hoped you’d do that much. I was so worried about you.”
He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. “Elizabeth, you were the one who didn’t call me.”
“That’s ridiculous. I called your cell phone twice … no, three times. The first two times, I left messages.”
“When did you call?”
“The first time was the morning after we … the morning after the party. And then I called again later that afternoon. You don’t expect me to believe that both messages just vanished in a puff of smoke, do you?”
William took a step toward her and grasped her shoulders, looking directly into her eyes. She started to pull away, but the intensity of his expression froze her in place. He spoke emphatically but quietly. “I swear to you, Elizabeth, I didn’t get any messages from you. I never heard a word from you after that night.”
She heard the sincerity in his voice, and saw it in his earnest gaze. Improbable as it seemed, he was telling the truth. “I don’t understand.”
William’s grip on her shoulders grew gentler. “Neither do I, but I swear it’s true.”
“But what about the note I left you at the hospital?”
His eyes widened. “You left me a note?”
“Yes, of course, the day I came to visit. I set it right next to the orchid.” She saw the distress and confusion in William’s eyes, and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. “You didn’t get the note?”
The pain in his eyes hardened into cold rage. He released his hold on her and stepped away. “That conniving bitch,” he spat out. “I apologize for my language, but I’d like to kill her.”
“What does she have to do with this?”
“She claimed the orchid was from her.”
“She took credit for my orchid?”
“She must have taken your note, too.”
Much as she disliked Caroline, Elizabeth would never have expected that she would sink this low in her pursuit of William. “Then you didn’t know the orchid was from me, and you never got my note because of that … that … I can’t even think of the right word for her. But you still knew I’d been to the hospital to see you, right? And that should have told you I wasn’t angry anymore. So why didn’t you call?”
He shook his head slowly. “I only found out about your visit to the hospital the day before yesterday.”
Painful knots were forming in her stomach. “But Allen saw me. And the nurse promised to tell you I’d been there.”
“Allen assumed that I’d seen you. And the nurse only said that my … that a woman had visited me. When Caroline showed up, I assumed she was my unnamed visitor.”
“So, as far as you knew, I never contacted you again after that night?”
“I thought you hated me. That you couldn’t forgive me.”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t hate you, no matter how hard I tried. By the next morning I felt terrible about what I’d said and done. But then when you didn’t call me back ….”
William closed his eyes and stood immobile for several seconds, his white shirt seeming to glow in the dim light. When at last he opened his eyes, they glittered with unshed tears. “What did you say?” he asked. “In your phone messages. Please, I need to know.”
“I don’t remember exactly, but I told you I wanted to apologize, and we needed to talk. And I said that maybe it was a good idea for you to come over that evening after all.”
“Oh, my God,” he whispered. He closed his eyes again and swallowed hard. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes. But you wouldn’t have been able to come. You were in the hospital by then.”
“But, still, to have known that ….” His voice trailed off and he shook his head, staring at the ground.
“So, you’re saying that you wanted me to call, and if you’d gotten the messages you would have called me back?”
He stepped closer to her and reached out slowly, smoothing a curl away from her cheek. “Oh, God, yes,” he whispered. “I don’t think there was anything I wanted more. When I was in the hospital, I kept asking for my cell phone. And then, when there weren’t any messages from you ….”
His voice trailed off, and Elizabeth could no longer hold back her tears.
“I even dreamed that you came to visit me.” He brushed a teardrop from her cheek with his thumb.
The poignant sadness in his expression made her heart ache. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“Of course not,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. His hand dropped to his side. “How could you have known? You thought I was ignoring your calls because you hadn’t given me what I wanted.”
She shook her head. “I should have given you more credit. But you must have thought I was heartless, not to contact you when you were so sick.”
“I assumed that you didn’t know. Besides, you were angry with me. I found myself wishing you’d call and yell at me some more; at least we would have been communicating.” A reluctant smile crept onto his face.
Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. “And considering what I’d said to your face, I suppose it wasn’t hard to imagine me calling just to heap some more abuse on your head.”
Silence fell between them as they regarded each other, their smiles slowly fading.
“Is it too late to make things right between us?” William asked.
“I hope not, but things will be different now. I understand you’re going to announce your engagement to Anne de Bourgh soon.”
He stared at her, his expression incredulous. “Who told you that?”
“Who heard it from Catherine, obviously. I’ve known Anne for years and she is a friend, nothing more. The only marriage plans between us are in Catherine’s twisted imagination.”
So Jane had been correct. Elizabeth felt a wave of relief. But still …. “But you said you didn’t even want us to be friends. Why not?”
“You misunderstood. And as is often the case when you get upset about something, you didn’t give me a chance to finish.” He quirked an eyebrow at her.
Elizabeth winced. “Sorry. Bad habit of mine. You have my full attention now, and I promise not to interrupt.”
He took her hands in his. “What I meant,” he said, his voice a soft caress, “is that I don’t think I can be just friends with you, which you seemed to be suggesting. I want so much more than that, and I don’t think I’d be able to pretend otherwise. But if friendship is all you want—”
“It’s not.” She took a deep breath. “I want more, too.”
He squeezed her hands tightly, and an expression of utter delight warmed his features. As she gazed at him, she felt a lump forming in her throat. “I’ve missed you,” she said quietly.
“Not half as much as I’ve missed you, Lizzy—I mean, Elizabeth.”
“It’s okay; you can call me Lizzy.”
“Are you sure?” he teased, reaching up to adjust his jacket around her shoulders when it threatened to slip. “That night, you were pretty insistent that only your friends could do that.”
“Well, that’s true,” she retorted. “And you did say that you didn’t want to be friends.”
“And you make a habit of twisting everything I say.” William caressed her cheek.
“Okay, I take it back. You can call me Lizzy as much as you want.” She stepped forward involuntarily, as though the warmth in his eyes was a silken cord slowly but inexorably pulling her toward him.
“Lizzy,” he murmured in his soft, deep voice. She was compelled to step forward again, until their bodies touched lightly.
“Lizzy,” he said again, this time barely above a whisper. The sound seemed to vibrate through her body, and her breathing became shallow.
“Lizzy,” he whispered. His gaze dropped to her lips, and when his eyes met hers again, they held a question. She was confused by his hesitation until she realized that he was waiting for her to take the lead. She slid her hands up his chest to his shoulders and then linked her hands behind his nape. Exerting gentle pressure on his neck, she coaxed his head down to hers until their lips met in a soft, lingering kiss.
He slid his arms around her waist, beneath his jacket. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed you.”
She tightened her arms around his neck, and his jacket slipped off her shoulders. She looked at it where it lay in an undignified heap at her feet, but he tightened his hold on her when she tried to reach down to rescue it.
“Leave it,” he whispered, his lips brushing her forehead. “I couldn’t let go of you right now if I tried.”