The cool air was heavy with moisture, but the fog had mostly burned off, offering the promise of a sunny afternoon. He crossed the street and walked through Huntington Park on his way home, wishing he could run through it instead.
It was early—he had awakened shortly after dawn, still adjusting to the time difference—and an empty day stretched before him. How should he spend it? A drive, perhaps? Taking the Ferrari out on the highway seemed tantalizing until an image of the unoccupied passenger seat cast a pall over his thoughts. He was a veteran of hundreds of days spent alone in unfamiliar cities, and usually he didn’t mind, even preferred it. But today the prospect made him melancholy. Charles was on his way back to Los Angeles and Elizabeth was busy. He would see her tomorrow at school.
This reminder of the conservatory wasn’t a cheerful thought either. Over the next two months he would be traversing a minefield. If his relationship with Elizabeth developed as he hoped it would, concealing it from Catherine would be imperative. To retaliate for what she would see as a monumental insult to Anne, Catherine would almost certainly extract vengeance by breaking her promise and telling Elizabeth, in the most insulting way possible, why she had been hired and who was paying her salary. Elizabeth would be humiliated, and he would be at fault.
The only way he could prevent Catherine from doing this damage was to tell Elizabeth himself. He dreaded the prospect, but it was unavoidable. Not yet, though; it was too soon. Her disconcerting words about Catherine still rang in his ears: “She has no right to behave as though somebody coerced her into hiring me.” He hadn’t done that, not literally, but like the Godfather, he had made Catherine an offer she couldn’t refuse.
If he could make Elizabeth love him, then he could risk telling her the truth. Then she would understand that he had acted out of love, and she would forgive him for hurting her pride and for being the unwitting cause of Catherine’s hostility.
He blinked and looked around, momentarily disoriented, and then recognized that he was walking alongside the Fairmont Hotel, heading downhill to the bay. While engrossed in his thoughts, he had overshot his building. He turned and retraced his steps.
A bleary-eyed Elizabeth ambled into the kitchen for breakfast. She greeted Jane, who looked fresh and lovely in her lace-trimmed pink pajamas. Elizabeth didn’t even bother to cast a disdainful glance at her own rumpled nightshirt. Nobody but Jane could make cotton knit pajamas look like a couture ensemble, and comparison was pointless.
Elizabeth had never begrudged Jane her serene beauty; however, she had grown up under the weight of their mother’s constant reminders that she wasn’t as pretty as her sister. “If you’d just make an effort, Lizzy, you could be quite attractive,” had been Frances Bennet’s mantra. But as a child, Elizabeth hadn’t wanted to make an effort. She had loved to run and play outdoors, and at bedtime Jane or Mary had often been sent out to find her rambling through the neighborhood, pitching in an informal game of baseball or climbing a tree. Her wardrobe of choice had been jeans and a tee shirt, her preferred hairstyle a bushy ponytail. Only on ceremonial occasions, and then under extreme protest, had she ever donned a dress, invariably one of Jane’s frilly hand-me-downs.
Elizabeth’s fashion sense had changed, but not improved, when she entered adolescence. She had been, hormonally speaking, an early bloomer, and she was mortified when the boys in the neighborhood—her former playmates—began to tease her about the changes in her body. Embarrassment had led her to conceal her budding figure beneath a procession of shapeless, oversized blouses and shirts. Over the years her wardrobe choices had broadened, but she had continued to prefer clothes that hid her shape.
Recently, she had purchased more new clothes—and more flattering clothes—than at any other time in her life. She had finally learned that her hair could be an asset with the right sort of styling. And she felt … beautiful? Yes, sometimes she did, because of something in the way William looked at her, something that sent warmth seeping through her even now.
Jane left the kitchen to prepare for her morning run, leaving Elizabeth alone with her English muffin. She nibbled it, replaying Jane’s advice from last night. She nodded and reached for the telephone.
“Hello?” William sounded far more alert than he had last night.
“Hi, William. It’s—”
“Lizzy! I didn’t expect to hear from you today.”
“I hope I didn’t call at a bad time.”
“Not at all. In fact, maybe you can help me. I want to go for a drive today, and maybe take a walk on a beach while I’m out, but I’m not sure where to go.”
“Uh huh. But, seriously, it’s a gorgeous drive, custom-made for your car.”
“It sounds perfect. Just what I was looking for.”
“If you’re heading that way, you’d better leave soon. Looks like a nice day, so lots of people will have the same idea.”
Before Elizabeth could figure out how to invite herself along on the excursion, William said, “I wish you could come with me.”
“Well, actually, that’s why I called. I decided that I’m well enough prepared for the start of classes, and there’s no reason for me to sit here on a beautiful day and obsess about tomorrow. So if you’d like a navigator ….”
“How soon can you be ready?”
His unabashed enthusiasm touched her heart. Jane had been right: the key was to notice the differences. William was happy to have her company. Michael would have thought he was doing her a favor. “Is half an hour okay?”
“Great. I’ll meet you in front of my building.”
She hung up the phone and went to her room to get dressed, humming to herself.
The road hugs the dramatic coastline from Fort Bragg southward, a roller coaster of a road replete with sharp turns, gentle hills, and deep valleys. It passes woodlands, fields of wildflowers, and even a castle—the one built at San Simeon by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. But the star attraction is the Pacific Ocean, sometimes crashing into rocky cliffs, sometimes lapping at sandy beaches, but always stretching to the horizon, immense and majestic.
He and Elizabeth made their first stop at Muir Beach Overlook. They wandered down the trail hand in hand and admired the dramatic view of the coastline that unfolded beneath them from the rocky outcropping. As they returned to the parking area, he said, “By the way, if you’re hungry, Mrs. Reynolds sent some snacks: fruit and cheese, more of yesterday’s cookies, and I think some drinks, too.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m sure that’s part of it. And she made me promise to explain that she only had ten minutes to put it together, or else it would have been a full lunch.”
“I wish I had someone like Mrs. Reynolds taking care of me,” she said with a sigh. “She’s wonderful.”
“She’s disappointed that she won’t see you before she goes home.”
“I wanted to ask about that. Is the dinner invitation still open?”
“Hmm. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.” He darted a furtive glance at Elizabeth, who was clearly caught off guard. As they arrived at the car, he grinned. “Okay, I’ve thought about it. Yes.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Very funny.”
He reached for the car door. “What happened? I thought you had plans with Jane.”
“I do. I guess I never really explained about this reception.” She slid into the passenger’s seat. “It probably sounded like I was just going there to schmooze with a bunch of lawyers.”
“No comment,” he replied, grinning. He closed her door and moved around to the driver’s side.
“It’s much more than that,” she explained. “Jane does a lot of pro bono work, and she’s getting an award for community service. One of her friends called me a couple of weeks ago to tell me about it. It was going to be a surprise, but someone called her yesterday and congratulated her. Originally it was my job to make sure she attended—and arrived on time—but now one of her friends is going to pick her up at work, and a group of them are going to dinner afterwards.”
“But you’re still going to the reception?”
“Of course.” She paused. “There’s something else, too.”
His hand paused on the ignition. “Hmm?”
“Monday is Mrs. Reynolds’s last day in town, and I’m sure she has a million things to do. So why don’t I take you out to dinner? We can stop by afterwards to say hello.”
“Not a chance.”
“Why not?” A pronounced frown line formed between her eyebrows.
“Because Mrs. Reynolds would be offended by the suggestion that she couldn’t put together a gourmet feast for two in 24 hours with plenty of time left over.”
“I’m not saying she can’t do it. I’m just saying she has other things to do.”
“Trust me, she’d be crushed if we had dinner anywhere else.” He started the car and pulled out of the parking area, returning to the highway.
“He took you to the Tonga Room? You’re kidding.” Elizabeth, who was leaning back on her elbows on a beach towel, turned sideways to face him.
Her shoulders shook as she laughed, and even though she was laughing at him, he was soon chuckling as well.
As Elizabeth had predicted, Stinson Beach was a popular destination on this pleasant Sunday, but there had been no problem finding an open space on which to spread the beach towels she had brought along. Despite the cool ocean breeze, it was warm in the sun, and William was glad he had chosen to wear shorts instead of jeans with his polo shirt.
Her laughter subsided, and she favored him with an affectionate smile that sent his heart careening into his ribs. “I wish I’d been there to see you. You must have been absolutely adorable, all grumpy and haughty.”
“I’m not sure I agree with your characterization, but as long as you think I’m adorable I’d be a fool to argue.”
She laughed again, softly this time. “You need to wear a sign around your neck like the ones you see outside the cages at the zoo: ‘Please don’t feed the ego.’”
“I’m not that bad, am I?”
“I’ve known worse. But it’s so much fun to tease you. Tell me your impressions of the Tonga Room.”
“Have you ever been there?”
She nodded. “A couple of times. It’s a lot of fun.”
“You went there—voluntarily—more than once?”
“I’ve got news for you, Mr. Darcy. You’re going there more than once, voluntarily or otherwise. Why should Charles have all the fun of seeing William in Wonderland? Did you like the tropical rainstorms?”
“Hardly.” He exaggerated his haughty attitude, hoping to provoke her further. He had often been teased in his life; Richard and Sonya were masters of the art. But never before had he so thoroughly relished the experience.
“Oh, I bet you had a wonderful time sneering at the place and dreaming up clever insults, but you’d sooner die than admit it. How was the band?”
“Pathetic. I didn’t know you could still buy sheet music for some of that stuff.”
“I don’t suppose you deigned to get up on the dance floor?” She sat up, hugging her knees to her chest.
“No. I avoid dancing whenever I can.”
“But you and I have danced … let’s see, three times, haven’t we? And you never seemed reluctant.”
“That’s entirely different.”
“Because you were in my arms.”
She busied herself brushing sand off her toes, but he saw her smile.
“What about you? Did you do any dancing last night?” he asked, hoping the answer was “no.”
She shook her head. “Char wanted to go to clubbing, but Jane and I weren’t in the mood.”
“You didn’t want to go dancing? I would think, being a dancer, you’d enjoy every opportunity.”
“I do,” she said slowly, “but recently I’ve found a partner I prefer, and I didn’t feel like dancing with anyone else.”
Only through the exertion of unyielding self-control did he stop himself from engulfing her in a crushing embrace. He forced himself to be satisfied with a smile and the brief response, “I’m glad, because I feel the same way.”
“Is it time for your nap?”
He opened his eyes and glanced over at her. “Don’t tempt me.”
“It’s okay, you know, if you need to rest.”
“Let’s go for a walk instead.”
“Okay. And how about having lunch after that? It’s getting late, and if I’m going to look Mrs. Reynolds in the eye tomorrow night, I need to make sure you get regular nourishment today.”
He and Elizabeth were only two of several visitors enjoying the sunny afternoon. Dogs strained at their leashes, barking at the already high-strung shore birds. Children waded into the chilly water or dug in the sand. Up ahead, a Frisbee bobbed among the waves, chased by two boys who rushed into the surf to retrieve it. But William was only peripherally aware of this activity as he strolled along the water’s edge. Elizabeth was close by his side, her hand meshed with his, and that was as it should be.
Later that afternoon, they walked together again, this time at Muir Beach. Much smaller than Stinson Beach, it was dotted with huge rocks and boasted a freshwater stream that emptied into the ocean. It was their final stop before heading home, and Elizabeth found herself seeking excuses to linger in order to prolong their day.
“Favorite food?” she asked, as they explored the tide pools near the mouth of the stream. She waded into one, surprised to find the water much warmer than the ocean. “I’m expecting it to be something spectacular.”
“Oh, beluga caviar or maybe a decadent dessert.”
He shook his head and smiled. “Sometimes when my mother was homesick for Italy she’d go down to the kitchen and make homemade pasta. Gnocchi was my favorite.” He licked his lips. “I can still taste them, made from scratch, topped with butter and sage and parmesan, or else with basil pesto.”
“Remember how you said once that tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich were comfort foods for you? For me, comfort food means gnocchi.”
“Do you still have it sometimes?”
“Once in a while Mrs. Reynolds fixes gnocchi as a special treat for me, but it’s not the same.”
His soft voice was tinged with sadness, and she knew that he was thinking of his mother. She reached out to take his hand and was rewarded by his tentative smile.
“How about you?” he asked. “What’s your favorite food?”
“You’re probably thinking of king crab legs. I’m talking about whole crabs.”
“Dungeness crabs? They’re the local variety, aren’t they?”
“They are, but I’m partial to Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, steamed in their shells.”
He bent down to examine an unusually shaped rock lying in the sand. “I’ve never had them.”
“My aunt and uncle live in Baltimore, and I used to take the train down from New York for an occasional weekend. During crabbing season, we’d go to this plain-looking crab house right on the water. In good weather, we’d sit outside at a picnic table covered in heavy brown paper, and they’d bring the crabs out on cafeteria trays, encrusted with Old Bay seasoning.” Elizabeth’s eyes shone as she continued to reminisce. “I can remember some beautiful evenings, watching the sun set and the sailboats coming into the cove to moor for the night.”
“There’s something magical, almost hypnotic, about being near the water, isn’t there?” he remarked.
“I relax better at a beach than anyplace else. It feels so good to just sit and listen to the waves, and watch the birds and the people.” She turned toward the ocean, her eyes fixed on nothing in particular.
They meandered in the direction of the large black rocks at the far end of the beach. “I hope I can show you Pemberley someday,” he said.
“That’s your family’s house in Barbados, right? I remember you mentioning how much you love it there.”
“We used to go there frequently when I was small, but then my music started taking more time. Nowadays I get there maybe twice a year, if I’m lucky. We were supposed to go in June, but we had to cancel.”
“Because of your illness?”
“What a shame. I’d have thought that relaxation and sunshine would have been the perfect medicines.”
“They might have been, but the doctors didn’t want me that far from a major medical center.”
She glanced at him, biting her lip. “You were sicker than you’ve told me, weren’t you?”
“I’m going to be fine.”
She shook her head at his evasiveness and considered pressing him for information, but from the stubborn set of his jaw, she knew that further questions would yield no new information. Instead, she returned the conversation to Pemberley. “What do you like to do when you’re there?”
“Almost anything that involves being outdoors. Running, or taking long walks on the beach. Relaxing on our hilltop overlooking the water and reading, or sitting on the beach watching the waves break. Or lounging in the hot tub until 2:00 am, gazing at the stars and listening to the whistling frogs.”1
She closed her eyes and imagined him in the hot tub, sipping a glass of wine as he studied the starry sky. She could almost smell the fragrance of tropical flowers wafted along by the warm, humid night air. The idyllic image was enhanced by an enticing vision of his bare chest emerging from the steaming caldron of water. “Do you like to swim?”
“I swim laps in our pool sometimes. Occasionally I swim in the ocean, but on our side of the island it’s too rough for swimming.”
Her overheated imagination conjured up an image of William clad in nothing but a pair of drenched swim trunks that clung to him as he stepped out of the ocean and sauntered across the beach. A wave of guilt flowed over her for concocting such a lascivious fantasy, but she quickly squelched it. Why should I put him in extra clothes? It’s my fantasy. If I wanted, he could be skinny-dipping!
Those words had barely entered her mind when her imagination rewound the fantasy, this time omitting the swim trunks. Her eyes became huge as her brain conjured up a dark-haired, virile Adonis, water droplets clinging to his body as he emerged from the surf and strode to a chaise lounge in the shade of a palm tree.
“Lizzy, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she replied, trying to control the quiver in her voice. “Why do you ask?”
“You got quiet all of a sudden.”
“I was just thinking about something.” She led him closer to the waves, welcoming the chilly water that lapped over her feet. “You said you’re coming to campus tomorrow, right?”
“Come to my office when you get in,” she said. “We’ll go on the grand tour.”
He smiled. “By the way, while I’m thinking of it, I want to get your cell phone number before I take you home.”
“I don’t have a cell phone.”
“I never knew you were a cell phone hater like I am.”
She smiled. “Not really. I couldn’t afford one while I was in grad school, and since I’m not used to having one, it hasn’t been a priority.” She glanced at her watch. “We’d better head back to the city. I’ve got that gig tonight, and I have to change first.”
He drew her into the circle of his arms. “We can’t go quite yet.” He removed his sunglasses, hanging them over the open neck of his polo shirt.
“Why not?” She saw his eyes darken with desire, and she knew immediately what he wanted.
“Because I need to do this first,” he murmured. He bent his head, and his warm lips covered hers.
“Okay, that takes care of favorite composers. What’s the next category?” William asked, grinning.
They had been standing outside Elizabeth’s door for the past fifteen minutes, continuing their discussion of their favorite things. She needed to leave for the jazz group gig soon or she’d be late, and she still had to shower and change clothes. But William obviously didn’t want to go, and she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye.
“Favorite movie,” she said.
“I’m not sure I want to tell you.”
“Because I think men are supposed to mention The Godfather or an action movie.”
“But not you?”
“I’ve seen The Godfather and I enjoyed it, but to Richard it has almost religious significance. He loves to find excuses to quote from it.”
She nodded. “I’ve known guys like that. And they love to imitate Brando. I can’t see you doing that. Well, then, come on, ‘fess up. If you’re not a Godfather guy, what’s your favorite?”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “I love that movie!”
“So you’re not going to laugh at me for choosing it?”
“Of course not. It just shows that you have excellent taste. I love the wit, and the acting is fantastic, and … you know, we should watch it together some time.”
“I’d like that.”
“And I can see why you’d like that movie. After all, it’s about your tribe.”
“Old-money Episcopalians,” she retorted with a sassy grin.
“You are a wicked woman,” he said, his attempt at a stern expression a complete failure. “If I’d had the slightest idea you were like this—”
“What would you have done about it, tough guy?” She stepped closer to him, their bodies touching lightly, energy crackling between them.
He leaned forward. “I’d have kissed you a lot sooner.”
Her hand curled around his neck, and she felt his warm breath fanning her face. “But you kissed me the morning after you met me.”
“Precisely,” he murmured, gathering her into his arms as his lips descended to meet hers. “A whole day wasted.”