Elizabeth stood in the Green Room of the War Memorial Veteran’s Building, sipping a glass of white wine. An artificial smile adorned her face while she pretended to listen to an attractive but dull real estate attorney expound on currently available investment property in the Bay Area. She was processing his nonstop monologue in a remote corner of her brain in the unlikely event that he said anything requiring a response, but he clearly enjoyed the sound of his own voice and seemed to require no encouragement. She peeked at her watch and nearly sighed aloud in relief. It was almost seven, which meant that she could leave soon.
Her eyes restlessly scanned her surroundings, which were far more interesting than her companion. The long, narrow room had been named for the mint green paint adorning the walls. It was lit by glittering chandeliers suspended from a lofty ivory and gold leaf ceiling. Gilded columns lined the room, and several sets of glass doors along one wall led to a gallery overlooking the street.
She managed to detach herself from the real estate maven, politely declining both his dinner invitation and his request for her phone number. She scanned the room and saw Jane near the bar accepting congratulations from a large group of colleagues. Elizabeth waved goodbye and turned toward the exit. Halfway to the door she froze in place, surprised by an unexpected sight.
William was weaving his way through the room, glancing around. Their eyes met and his face brightened into a devastating smile. She stood still, savoring the pleasure of watching him come to her, his tall form impeccably garbed in a double-breasted suit in a dark shade of blue-gray. His eyes never left hers, oblivious to the heads swiveling in his direction.
“Good evening, Ms. Bennet,” he murmured when at last he stood before her.
“What are you doing here? We didn’t talk about you coming to pick me up.”
“I attended a reception here a few years ago, after a concert. I always wanted to get another look at the place when I wasn’t the center of attention.”
She almost laughed; he was currently the focus of more attention than he realized. “I thought we agreed that you were going to rest at home until I arrived,” she said in a mildly accusing tone, though she couldn’t summon up any genuine annoyance.
“I rested, for a while, anyway. Ready to go?”
“You bet. In fact, you almost missed me; I was on my way out when I saw you. I drove here myself, so I guess I’ll see you at your place.”
“Why not just ride with me?”
“I can’t. I don’t want to leave my car here.”
“Too bad,” he said. “I was going to ask if you’d like to drive.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh. “The Ferrari? Oh, come on. You know I can’t resist that.”
He shrugged, wearing a sly grin.
“All right, yes, I would love to drive the Ferrari. I’d ask you to drive my car, but there’s no way I’m getting behind the wheel of that beast on my own. Let me talk to Jane. In fact, why don’t you come with me and say hello? I know she’d like that.”
He glanced in Jane’s direction and a frown line appeared between his eyebrows. “I, ah … no, I wouldn’t want to interrupt.”
“She wouldn’t consider it an interruption. In fact, she might be hurt if you didn’t at least say hello. And I know you wouldn’t want to hurt my sister’s feelings.”
William took a deep breath but then nodded. “Of course not. Let’s go.”
When Jane saw them approaching, she smiled in warm welcome. “William, how nice to see you!”
“Hello, Jane. Congratulations on your award.”
His smile looked half-hearted to Elizabeth, and his voice was subdued. She shot an inquiring glance at him, but he was inspecting his cufflinks and didn’t notice.
Jane either didn’t notice any lack of enthusiasm or politely ignored it. “Thank you. It was such an unexpected honor; so many of my colleagues do so much more than I do. Let me introduce you to my friends.”
William nodded and shook hands with each person as Jane made the introductions, but said nothing. When one of the lawyers effusively complimented his musical artistry, William thanked her briefly, still fiddling with his cuff links. Elizabeth was mystified by his attitude; why, suddenly, was he too exalted to say hello to Jane and her friends?
Rather than prolong the uncomfortable encounter, Elizabeth interceded. “We have to be going; we have dinner plans.”
“Same here; we should get moving, too,” one of the lawyers remarked.
Elizabeth fished her car keys and parking ticket out of her purse. “Jane, can you take my car? William will bring me home later.”
“Of course,” Jane said. “Have fun tonight.”
“You, too.” Then Elizabeth turned to William, who was standing off to one side. “Ready to go?”
He nodded, and together they made their way toward the exit.
“Are you feeling better now?” she asked.
“Much better; I guess I needed the rest. And you were a big help this afternoon.”
“Ah, yes. A few kisses and you completely forgot what ailed you.”
They exited the Green Room and proceeded downstairs. “I wouldn’t mind conducting an extensive exploration of the curative powers of your kisses,” he replied with a lazy grin. But then he stopped walking, and his expression softened into a warm look of appreciation. “But what I meant was that it helped to talk about what the doctor said. I’m still unhappy about it, but it doesn’t seem quite so hopeless now. Thank you.”
Her sweet, affectionate William was back again. After a quick glance around to ensure that they were alone, she stood up on tiptoe, her hands resting on his chest for balance, and kissed him. “I’m glad I could help.”
As they covered the short distance to the parking garage, they passed the Opera House. William remarked, “That reminds me. I called Sonya this morning and asked her to get us tickets to the opera.”
“Oh, good.” During their trip to the beach on Sunday, they had discussed their shared love of opera. “What date were you thinking of?”
“The season opens a week from Friday, with Rigoletto1. Are you available that night?”
“I think so, but, opening night? Won’t it be sold out already?”
He shrugged. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Elizabeth fell silent as they continued their walk to his car. William was the sort of person who could ask his secretary to call the managing director of the San Francisco Opera, and VIP tickets to a sold-out performance would promptly materialize. Ahead of them stood Symphony Hall, where he had held audiences spellbound with his technical brilliance and artistry. It was easy to forget those things while strolling barefoot along a beach with him, holding hands and sharing stories, but to forget was to risk future heartbreak.
They arrived at his car, and William held out the keys. She grabbed them from his hand, her eyes gleaming. She had driven the car from Stinson Beach to Muir Beach the previous afternoon, and she was itching for another opportunity to tackle the unfamiliar Formula 1-style gearbox.
Grinning, he opened the driver’s door for her. “Do you want the top up or down?”
“Up, if you don’t mind. I’d rather not have Bride of Frankenstein hair by the time we get to your place.”
Once he was seated on the passenger side, she cast a wicked glance at him, her hand poised on the ignition. “Do you suppose I can get it up to 100 miles an hour between here and Nob Hill?”
He patted the dashboard gently. “I’m sorry,” he addressed the car in a mournful tone. “I think I’ve created a monster.”
“Fasten your seatbelt,” Elizabeth replied in her best Bette Davis imitation. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
The ride to William’s building was, in fact, bumpy as Elizabeth continued to struggle with the transmission. William, to her surprise, relinquished this opportunity to tease her, exhibiting gentlemanly patience and more than a little courage as they lurched their way through traffic.
Mrs. Reynolds greeted Elizabeth warmly on their arrival at the penthouse. Elizabeth admired the light, airy entrance foyer and especially the stained glass skylight in the living room. “You were lucky to have a place like this just sitting empty, ready for you to use.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he replied. “I never really thought about it.”
Mrs. Reynolds appeared with two glasses of wine. Elizabeth accepted hers with thanks, her mind on William’s comment. He took so much for granted.
A phone rang in another room, and Mrs. Reynolds excused herself. She reappeared a moment later.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Mr. Darcy, but there’s a phone call for you.”
The characteristic frown line between William’s eyebrows appeared, this time forming a particularly deep crease. “Take a message.”
The intrepid housekeeper stood her ground. “You should really take this call. It’s Dr. Rosemont.” She glanced at Elizabeth. “His New York doctor.”
“Nonsense. I’m not going to leave Elizabeth sitting alone while I talk on the phone.”
Elizabeth touched his arm. “No, you should talk to her. You can ask her about what Dr. Salinger said. I bet that’s why she’s calling.”
“It can wait till tomorrow.”
“Please, Mr. Darcy, listen to Ms. Bennet.”
Elizabeth noted the stubborn set to his jaw, but inspiration seized her at last. “Don’t you think you’d sleep better if she could help resolve some of your concerns? Remember, we want you to get more rest.”
His lips twitched. “Now who’s doing the shameless manipulating?”
“If you’re going to dish it out, you’d better be prepared to take it.”
William stood up slowly, a bemused smile on his face. “It appears that I’ve been beaten at my own game. But don’t think for a second that I don’t know the real reason you two want to get rid of me. My ears are going to be burning, aren’t they?”
“Stop being paranoid and go talk to the doctor,” Elizabeth teased, rising to her feet. “I promise, we’ll only say nice things about you.”
With a soft chuckle, he stepped toward her, his eyes on her lips. After a moment of hesitation and a glance at Mrs. Reynolds, he kissed Elizabeth softly. “I’ll be back soon,” he murmured.
As soon as he was gone, Mrs. Reynolds said, “He was right. I was hoping to have a chance to speak to you in private.”
“I’d like that too.”
“I hate to ask, but would you mind keeping me company in the kitchen? I need to keep an eye on dinner.”
Elizabeth followed Mrs. Reynolds into the kitchen, whose most notable feature was a huge copper range hood. “Mmm, it smells delicious in here.”
“We’ve put together a tasting menu for you. I hope you enjoy it.” Mrs. Reynolds opened the oven, checking a small casserole dish filled with some sort of creamy substance.
“A cauliflower and chanterelle mushroom gratin. It’s for the second course, along with seared scallops.”
Elizabeth almost giggled at Mrs. Reynolds’s matter-of-fact tone, as though every kitchen in America had gourmet delicacies in the oven. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Thank you, but I’ve got things pretty well under control. Now, Ms. Bennet—”
“Please, call me Elizabeth.”
Mrs. Reynolds smiled and nodded. “Elizabeth. Forgive me if I’m being presumptuous, but it’s obvious that Mr. Darcy is very fond of you, and unless I’m mistaken you’ve grown rather fond of him, too.”
Elizabeth nodded and studied the counter, suddenly self-conscious. “Yes, I have.”
“Good. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but you could have knocked me over with a feather just now when he kissed you.”
Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to say, so she remained silent and took a sip of her wine.
Mrs. Reynolds patted Elizabeth’s arm. “I don’t mean to embarrass you. I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong for him to kiss you. But I’m surprised that he did it in front of me. He’s so private about things like that. I’ve rarely even met one of his former … lady friends.”
This was Elizabeth’s first confirmation that, as she had suspected, William had a long line of ex-girlfriends. “You mean he doesn’t usually invite his girlfriends over to the townhouse for dinner?”
“Heavens, no.” Mrs. Reynolds set some fresh herbs on a cutting board and began to chop them. “Sometimes if there’s a large dinner party at the house he brings a date, but you’re the only woman he’s ever invited home for a private dinner.”
Mrs. Reynolds set down her knife, her eyes meeting Elizabeth’s. “He probably wouldn’t be happy if he heard me telling you these things.”
“Don’t worry. My lips are sealed, I promise.”
Mrs. Reynolds smiled briefly and returned to her work. “It’s just that I’m worried about leaving tomorrow. He’s not accustomed to being on his own.”
“But he said you’d hired a part-time housekeeper … Mrs. Hill, isn’t it?”
“That’s not the same.” She set down the knife and brushed the chopped herbs into a small bowl. “I’m not sure what he’s told you about his health.”
“He’s told me a little bit, but I get the feeling he’s skipped some details.”
“That’s what worries me. He’s not taking his condition seriously enough.”
“I agree. In fact, he and I talked about that earlier today.”
“What has he told you?”
Elizabeth briefly summarized what she knew about William’s health, for the moment leaving out the incident on Telegraph Hill. She finished by mentioning in vague terms the discouraging news from Dr. Salinger that morning.
Mrs. Reynolds nodded. “That’s why Dr. Rosemont is on the phone. She called earlier, while he was out, and I encouraged her to call back. Apparently she talked to the doctor William’s seeing out here, and she thought she’d better follow up with William. She’s been his doctor for a long time, but even she hasn’t had much luck getting through to him lately.”
“Apparently Dr. Salinger was pretty blunt. In the long run, that may get William to take things seriously, but right now I think he’s overwhelmed.” Elizabeth rubbed her fingers together, thinking of the tear she had brushed from his cheek while cradling his head in her lap.
“That poor boy. He didn’t seem at all himself when he came home from the doctor’s office today.”
“It must be difficult for him to suddenly become a heart patient at age 30, especially considering the active life he’s accustomed to leading.”
Mrs. Reynolds stared at Elizabeth, frowning, and Elizabeth wondered what she had said to upset the older woman. She was about to inquire when Mrs. Reynolds said, “There’s no question that his health has interfered with his life. I suppose that’s why he tried to ignore the problem for so long. Did he tell you that he’d been having symptoms for months before he collapsed in the park that day? Dizzy spells, severe headaches, breathlessness. But he just kept ignoring everything.”
“Wait a minute.” Elizabeth set down her wine glass more forcefully than she had intended. “He collapsed in the park?”
“Why, yes, of course. He didn’t tell you? That’s how he ended up in the hospital.”
“He collapsed in the park,” Elizabeth repeated, her stomach tightening. “In Central Park?”
“He went running with Richard, got dizzy and breathless, and passed out. Richard had to call 911.”
“Oh, no.” Elizabeth felt a cold chill, imagining him lying unconscious on the ground. Then she remembered his symptoms on Telegraph Hill, and she shivered. Oh, William, why did you let me drag you up there? “I had no idea it was that bad. No wonder you all watched him so closely all summer.”
“So he told you that, did he?”
“But he never told me about collapsing, or the 911 call, or any of that.”
Mrs. Reynolds sighed, shaking her head slowly. “That’s what worries me. He tries to pretend that nothing’s wrong, and he’s not going to get better if he keeps that up.”
“That’s why he needs someone to look after him once I leave. I was hoping you could be that person.”
Elizabeth realized that this request was tantamount to the Mrs. Reynolds Official Seal of Approval. “I promised to help him in any way I could, but I’m not sure if he’ll let me.”
“I have a feeling you’ll have more luck than the rest of us. You convinced him to talk to Dr. Rosemont just now, even though he was digging in his heels. Mind you, I’m not criticizing him. It’s just that he always tries to be so strong and capable.”
“And he’s not used to situations that are beyond his control.” Elizabeth could relate to finding the loss of control distressing.
“But it’s wonderful to see how much happier he is here in California. He was miserable in New York all summer. You’ve probably noticed the weight he lost; he just didn’t have any interest in food. I used to cook all his favorites, but he’d sit there at the table picking at them. Would you excuse me for a moment? I need to get some things from the pantry.”
Elizabeth stood alone in the kitchen, blinking back tears. She knew she had added to his misery by rejecting him so coldly that night in New York.
The housekeeper returned, bearing a bottle of olive oil and a bulb of garlic. “I hope you don’t mind the way I’m talking your ear off about William.”
“Of course not. He obviously means a lot to you.”
“He’s the finest young man I’ve ever known. I couldn’t love him more, or be prouder of him, if he were my own son.”
“Do you have children?”
“No. I was pregnant once, but … he was stillborn. It happened shortly before Allen and I came to work for the Darcys.” Mrs. Reynolds retrieved a small skillet from a cabinet, set it on the stove, and switched on the burner.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“I still think about him, what sort of man he would have grown up to be, and how our lives might have been different. He’d be just a little older than William.”
“I’m sure you would have been a wonderful mother.”
“Thank you, dear.” Mrs. Reynolds drizzled oil into the pan. “Still, I consider myself blessed because I got the chance to help raise William and Georgiana. Have you met her?”
“We met briefly the night I came for dinner. She and William seem to be close.”
“He’s really the closest thing to a father she’s ever known. I just wish he’d settle down and start a family of his own so I could help with the next generation of Darcys.”
“Your grandchildren,” Elizabeth said softly.
“Yes, exactly.” Mrs. Reynolds’s smile was poignant. “It would be wonderful to have little ones in the house again. But listen to me, going on and on, keeping you standing around in the kitchen.”
“I’m glad we had a chance to talk.”
“So am I. I won’t worry so much about William, knowing that you’re keeping an eye on him. Now, why don’t you let me refill your wine glass. I’m sure he’ll be off the phone soon.”
While two of the women William loved best in the world were discussing him in the kitchen, he was in his bedroom, on the phone with another woman who had a sincere interest in his welfare.
“Okay,” Dr. Rosemont said. “First of all, let’s remember that early November was an optimistic estimate. We agreed that we’d see how things were going at that point. Dr. Salinger isn’t saying anything different. But somewhere along the line, you convinced yourself that you were going to be fully recovered by then.”
“I can’t keep canceling things. I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Then you’d better get serious about taking care of yourself. How many times have we had this conversation? Get lots of rest. Eat right. Get out and walk, but do it on level ground, or at least as close to level ground as you can find in San Francisco.” In a moment of questionable judgment he now regretted, William had told her about the incident on Telegraph Hill.
“All right, I’ll try.”
“Don’t try. Do it! And avoid stress as much as you can. Relaxation is more than just taking naps, you know.”
Except that the two best stress relievers I can think of are the things Dr. Salinger said were forbidden.
As if reading his mind, Dr. Rosemont continued, “And as to what he said about sex, I get the impression that’s bothering you.”
William scoffed. “Why should it bother me to be turned into a virtual eunuch?”
“I don’t think he meant it as a long-term restriction. The last time I saw you, I thought you were fit enough for sexual activity, in moderation at least. But perhaps Dr. Salinger prefers a more conservative approach. I think before too long he’ll give you back your nookie card.”
“What about running? I’m going to have to rebuild my muscle tone from scratch.”
“I know it’s tough to play a waiting game, particularly when you don’t know how long you’re going to have to wait. And patience has never been your strong suit.”
“Thanks a lot,” William grumbled, but Dr. Rosemont’s mix of sympathy and sarcasm was, as always, making him feel better.
“Here’s my advice. First, trust Dr. Salinger. I’ve known Martin since med school. He’s a little short in the bedside manner department, but he’s an excellent cardiologist. Do what he tells you. And I mean everything, not just the things that suit you. Second—and this part may make you gag because it’s rather Pollyanna-ish—try to maintain a positive attitude.”
“I’m not gagging, precisely, but being positive is easier said than done when I’m getting all this bad news.”
“William ….” Dr. Rosemont paused. “You refused to discuss this last summer, but I need to say it again. I suspect you’ve been suffering from depression, and probably still are. I’m sure Dr. Salinger can refer you to a therapist for evaluation, or prescribe some medication if that seems appropriate.”
“Absolutely not.” Dr. Salinger had also raised this point. But weakness of that sort was unthinkable.
“There’s no shame in it. It’s common for heart patients to have some difficulty coping.”
“I said no, Teresa.”
“I think you’re making a mistake, but I can’t tie you up and force you to speak to a therapist. In that case, self-help is even more important. For example, can you think of at least one good thing about this break you’re taking?”
William smiled in spite of himself. “Yes, I can.” She was in his living room at that moment, waiting for him. “Thank you. You always make good sense, even if I don’t always want to hear it.”
“I’m happy to help. Call me any time.”
When he re-entered the living room, Elizabeth stood with her back to him, looking out at the balcony. She turned and saw him, her bright smile a healing balm to his soul. He returned the smile, his worries dissolving as he crossed the room to join her.
Elizabeth was relieved to see the smile on William’s face. Evidently Dr. Rosemont had found the right things to say.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” he said. “Did you and Mrs. Reynolds thoroughly dissect my life?”
Hands on her hips, she adopted a haughty manner. “Well, aren’t we full of ourselves? What makes you think that two intelligent, interesting women would have nothing better to talk about than you?”
“You keep telling me that arrogance is my defining characteristic, so what else would you expect from me?” He stepped close to her, wearing a cocky grin, and grasped her wrists lightly, drawing them away from her hips. His fingers coaxed her fists open with persuasive caresses that awoke every nerve ending in her body.
She drew a shaky breath. “Lucky for you, that arrogance of yours can be strangely attractive at times.”
“So you said the other day. In fact, I believe the precise word you used was ‘sexy.’”
“Did Dr. Rosemont convince you to take better care of yourself?”
His fingers trailed slowly up her arms, and even through her sweater, his seductive touch raised goosebumps on her flesh. “You were the one who did that, this afternoon in my studio. Besides, I’ve decided that the situation does have one or two compensations.”
She drew in a quick breath as his hands glided over the wide neckline of her sweater. His fingers were cool as they traced a circular path on her skin, yet they spread sensual heat.
“Well,” he drawled, bending his head, “if I weren’t here taking a rest right now, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
By now, she thought she should be accustomed to the sensation of his lips on hers, that every kiss shouldn’t start her knees trembling, but apparently this was an unrealistic expectation. His hands slid along her neck to cup her face as their mouths melted together.
William lifted his head slowly, toying with the curls that tumbled over her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here,” he murmured.
She stepped away from him reluctantly. “Mrs. Reynolds will probably be along any minute to tell us dinner is ready. And you already shocked her earlier when you kissed me.”
He raised his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head, but she saw that he was smiling. “I thought she looked surprised. I don’t behave that way in front of her … or anyone else. But where you’re concerned ….” He reached out to touch her hair.
“Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, Ms. Bennet.” Mrs. Reynolds stood in the doorway. “Dinner is served.”
1 Yes, of course Rigoletto was the first production of the San Francisco Opera during their 2001-2002 season, and it opened on the date implied by his statement (Friday, September 7). We do our homework here at AUS Headquarters.