William stood facing the stained glass windows, inspecting them at close range, his back to his fellow party guests. The best thing he could say about the evening so far was that there had been one or two pleasant moments. Brief ones.
He had enjoyed his conversation with Charlotte. Her manner always put him at ease, perhaps because she reminded him somewhat of Richard.
Later, Roger Stonefield had engaged William in a conversation about music, supplying the evening’s other bright spot. They had discovered similar tastes in jazz music, and Roger had proposed that the four of them—William, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and himself—visit one of the city’s jazz clubs in the near future. William had surprised himself by enthusiastically endorsing the idea.
Aside from those two intervals, there had been little about the party to enjoy. He didn’t know the other guests and wasn’t sure what to say to them. What conversations he had overheard mostly centered on parties and events common to Charlotte’s fellow graduate students. He remembered Elizabeth’s reproofs about his behavior at past parties and he was doing his best to at least be inconspicuous in his isolation, but he felt completely alone.
As he stood pondering his dilemma, he overheard a distasteful conversation between Kitty and Lydia, spoken in “confidential” tones that were clearly audible.
“You know,” Lydia said, “Mom’s starting to accept that Jane blew her chance with Charles … but who knows, he’s supposedly coming tonight. Maybe it’s not too late.”
“But that other guy, Jordan, is here.”
“Yeah, and he’s kind of a babe. I bet Jane invited him to make Charles jealous. I wonder if she ….”
Raucous laughter from across the room drowned out the rest of Lydia’s sentence. When William could hear them again, Kitty was talking about him.
“ … ten times more money than Charles, and Jane says he and Lizzy are seeing a lot of each other.”
“It’ll never last. He’s too hot. There’s no way a prude like Lizzy will be able to satisfy him.”
“So why don’t you go after him?” Kitty giggled.
Lydia snorted. “Oh, please. He’s too old for me. Besides, he seems like the settling-down type. I don’t want to settle down. Once I’m a famous actress, I’m going to spend my nights throwing wild Hollywood parties, and my days either shopping or locked in the pool house … with the pool boy, of course. C’mon, let’s get something to eat.”
William heaved a disgusted sigh as they crossed the room, clutching each other’s arms and giggling.
Bill Collins had been another continual irritant, following Elizabeth around like a faithful lapdog until William’s teeth were in danger of being ground down to stumps. Instead of fending Bill off, Elizabeth seemed to be treating him with indulgent warmth. I wish she would be half that nice to me.
That was the worst part. There was something the matter with Elizabeth. She seemed angry with him, but he had no idea what he had done. She exuded defiance, as though daring him to cross a line in the sand, yet the line was invisible, leaving him afraid to move in any direction. He wanted to ask her what was wrong, but had been avoiding him, and now she was preparing to perform. She and the rest of Golden Gate Jazz had been waiting for Charles to arrive, but the evening was passing rapidly and no one was sure when, or even if, Charles would appear.
William watched the musicians huddled together, discussing what to play. His gaze rested on Elizabeth, taking in her delicate profile and the curls spilling over her bare shoulders. She looked feminine and sweet, yet devastatingly sexy. No other woman at the party—no other woman in the world—could look so innocent and so tempting at the same time. With a sigh, he wandered to the bar to refill his wine glass.
As he left the bar, he saw Charles step through the doorway. William approached him, his hand outstretched. “You got here just in time,” William said. “They’re getting ready to play.” He inclined his head in the direction of the instrument case Charles carried. “Why don’t you unpack your saxophone and join them?”
William heard Charles inhale sharply. From the direction of his gaze, Charles must have seen Jane across the room. Unfortunately, her date picked that moment to drape his arm casually around her shoulders. William repeated his suggestion in a sympathetic tone, but Charles shook his head.
“I’ll just … watch for a while,” Charles said in a low voice, setting his instrument case on the floor. He still hadn’t looked away from Jane. “She’s with that guy?”
“I believe so.”
“Caroline told me Jane had been dating a guy up here for a while. I suppose that’s him?”
William shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I think he’s the one she was with at Rosings.”
William didn’t respond at first, wondering what to say. He thought it inexcusable that Jane, despite knowing that Charles would be in attendance, had brought a date to the party. It was cruel to reject him and then to rub salt in his still-fresh wounds.
“Charles ….” Before William could continue, Charlotte spoke in a loud voice.
“Could I have your attention, please?” The crowd gradually grew quiet. “First, I’d like to thank you all for coming to my birthday party, and I promise not to spoil your fun by giving a long speech. I’ve got terrific friends who are hosting this shindig, and some of them are on the platform behind me right now getting ready to entertain you. So listen up and enjoy.”
Elizabeth stepped in front of the band, a sultry look in her eyes that William hadn’t seen there before. She nodded to the bass player, who began to pluck out a throbbing introduction. Her gaze slid slowly over the audience, and just as she began to sing, William saw her raise a suggestive eyebrow at a man standing directly in front of her.
I can show the way, I know the way to please you.
If you’re wanting a beginner, I shan’t do.
I could make a saint a sinner when I want to.
If you find the simple kind are rather slow, dear,
Then you ought to try a naughty one you know, dear.
But you’ll never meet another who will be
A naughty baby, naughty baby just like me.
William swallowed hard. Before his eyes, she had transformed herself into the seductress of his heated dreams. She fixed her eyes on one man after another in the crowd, her expression full of tantalizing promise. Yet he could only stand and watch. It was more than any red-blooded man could be expected to endure. Even a eunuch.
One who’ll never set you in a whirl,
One who will be always sweet and gentle,
I am not that sort of girl
But if you prefer a rather swift one,
If you think you’d like to run around,
With a bright one I am just the right one.
The instrumentalists took temporary control of the song, featuring a clarinet solo and a showy part for Bill Collins on his electric keyboard, but William barely noticed. His eyes were locked on her, helpless to look away. His hands began to tremble, and he jammed them in his pockets as anger welled up inside him. He was angry with himself for desiring her so fiercely, for needing her so desperately, for loving her with such all-consuming fervor. He was angry with her for being sweet and warm and lively, for turning his world upside down, and for ignoring and disdaining him tonight for reasons he didn’t understand, making him feel even more invisible, even less significant … even more of a eunuch.
She had not yet made eye contact with him during her song, instead flirting madly with the men standing nearer the center of the crowd. But during the instrumental interlude, her eyes roved in William’s direction, finally coming to rest on him. He saw hesitation flicker across her face, no doubt provoked by the emotion that must have burned in his eyes. She licked her lips, a tiny frown creasing her forehead, and looked away as she began to sing again.
Then you ought to try a naughty one you know, dear.
But you’ll never meet another who will be
A naughty baby, naughty baby just like me.1
The crowd applauded loudly, many of the men contributing hoots and whistles of appreciation, but William stood completely unmoving, his hands still in his pockets, his face frozen in an impassive mask. She glanced again in his direction and her smile slipped a notch.
“Lizzy is really something,” Charles remarked as the applause faded. “You’re a lucky guy.”
William exhaled loudly. “Indeed.”
“I’m going to go say hello to Jane. I don’t want her to think that ….” Charles sighed. “Come with me, okay?”
They made their way to the center of the room, where Jane and Jordan stood with Charlotte. As they approached, Jane noticed Charles, apparently for the first time. She drew a quick breath and her eyes widened for a moment, but then a quiet smile spread across her face. Jane reminded William of the moon, serene and lovely to look at, but remote and dispassionate, entirely different from her spirited sister. It struck him that most of his past relationships had been with women more like Jane in that respect. It was no wonder Elizabeth had him so tied up in knots.
“Hello, Charles.” Jane’s voice was as placid as her smile. “It’s good to see you.”
“Hi, Jane.” Charles looked and sounded cheerful, earning William’s respect for this show of courage. “You look beautiful tonight. Doesn’t she, Will?”
The question took William by surprise, and he stammered, “Ah, yes. Yes indeed.”
Jane introduced Jordan to William and Charles, and stiff handshakes and pleasantries were exchanged.
“Did you bring your saxophone?” Charlotte asked Charles. “The guys were starting to worry that you weren’t coming.”
“I left it over by the door. I haven’t played much since the … since May, so I’m bound to be rusty.”
“Oh, I bet it’s like riding a bike,” Jordan remarked in a breezy tone. “Once you know how, you never forget.”
“You’re mistaken,” William answered in a cool tone, annoyed that this interloper was trivializing the life of a musician. “It takes constant practice to maintain your skill level on an instrument.”
“When it comes to practice, Will knows what he’s talking about,” Charles added, smiling. “He practices for hours every day.”
“And it certainly shows in his performances,” Jane said gently. “But I know Jordan didn’t mean to suggest that it’s easy to be a great musician, just that the basics stay with you once you master them. And I imagine that’s true, isn’t it?”
William was impressed with Jane’s diplomatic handling of the brief dispute. He was beginning to understand what Charles saw in her. It had been obvious from the start that she was the physical type Charles preferred: tall, slender, blonde, and beautiful in a natural, athletic way. But William saw now that their temperaments were compatible as well. Charles hated conflict and went to great lengths to try to make everyone happy. His deceitful behavior regarding the prenuptial agreement had been an extreme example of this tendency. Jane apparently shared his preference for conflict avoidance, along with skill in execution. The placid manner that made her, in William’s opinion, rather bland would be endearing to Charles. He wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to handle a vibrant woman like Elizabeth.
And I do?
William let out a little snort that turned four pairs of eyes in his direction. He muttered an apology and shoved his hands into his pockets again. As their small talk resumed, William gave it only half his attention, scanning the room in search of—
“How’s everybody doing?” He almost jumped when Elizabeth’s voice rang out directly behind him.
Charles turned and flashed a bright smile. “Lizzy! You were wonderful. I got here just in time to hear you.”
She hugged Charles while William looked on, discontented. It wasn’t the hug that bothered him; it was the fact that she was beaming at Charles, yet she hadn’t even acknowledged William’s presence in the group. I guess it’s easy to ignore a eunuch.
Charles studied Elizabeth with a degree of appreciation that William would have resented from any other man. “And you look … wow. I guess spending time with my silent partner here must agree with you.”
Elizabeth glanced in William’s direction for a split second and then smiled at Charles, but offered no other reply. Because of his growing familiarity with her, William absorbed the full weight of the annoyance she managed to pack into that quick glance.
He couldn’t stomach any more rejection. “Excuse me,” he said in a cool, formal voice. “I need some air.” He turned and stalked out of the room.
William’s abrupt departure reminded Elizabeth all too vividly of her goodbye party in New York, though at least this time he had told her where he was going. He had been angry with her for no good reason then, too. And that time she had run after him. Not this time. Let him leave. If he’s going to be a jerk, who needs him?
Even as this unforgiving train of thought flowed through her mind, Elizabeth knew she didn’t mean it. What if he was having a dizzy spell? He could pass out alone in the dark and hit his head and—
That was enough to set her moving. She excused herself, not caring that her departure was as abrupt as his, and hurried after him. As she burst through the doors, she saw him standing alone a short distance away, his back to her.
Relief flooded her, but it was short-lived as she absorbed the tension in his bearing, evident even from this distance. He stood ramrod straight, his arms crossed over his chest. She pressed her lips tightly together and considered going back inside without speaking to him. But it was time to clear the air on this point once and for all, unless she wanted to deal with his unpleasant attitude every time they attended a party. If I even want to attend any more parties with him, that is.
He turned when she was still several feet away, perhaps hearing her footsteps. He said nothing, simply observing her with a cool, level stare.
“What’s the matter?” She tamped down her exasperation and tried to remain calm.
“What makes you think anything is wrong?” His sarcastic tone infuriated her. “I needed some air. You didn’t need to come out and check on me. I know you’re busy inside with your many admirers.”
Elizabeth clenched her fists, her eyes icy green, and she verbally launched herself at him. “And to think that I followed you out here because I was worried about you! I thought maybe you weren’t feeling well, or that you were dizzy, and I couldn’t bear to think of you out here all alone, needing help.”
“That’s very kind of you,” he replied with a disengaged air. “I suppose I should be flattered to have your attention at last.”
“Okay, that’s it. We’re going to have this out, right now. None of this hiding behind sarcasm. I’m not going to let you do that.”
He raised his eyebrows, every inch the haughty aristocrat. “You’re not going to let me? I wasn’t aware that I answered to you.”
“In a way, you do. We’re in a relationship, and I have a right to expect some answers from you.”
“You have a right to expect answers?”
He was openly angry now, but Elizabeth preferred that to his previous frosty hauteur. “Okay, then, we both have a right to expect answers, though I can’t imagine what you could have to be angry about.”
His eyes flared and he opened his mouth, but she spoke again before he had a chance to speak. “No, I’m going first. I want you to tell me—”
“Hi, Elizabeth! We finally made it.”
She whirled to see a large group of Charlotte’s fellow doctoral students. “Hi, everybody,” she said. “Go on in; the party’s in full swing.”
An awkward interval passed while she and William waited to be alone again. Then he was the first to speak, raising his eyebrows. “You were saying?”
He had used the interruption to repair his mask of indifference; it was now firmly back in place. Elizabeth wished that she could tear it off to reveal the emotion that she knew lurked beneath. She had seen it in his eyes while she sang, almost frightening in its intensity.
“William, why are you acting like you don’t care? You’re ready to spit nails, though I have no idea why.”
“You’re the one who’s angry, Elizabeth. You’ve been avoiding me and glaring at me all evening.”
“Well, forgive me, but I’m sick and tired of watching you walk around at parties like the most exalted Lord of the Manor.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The mask had slipped again, and he was eyeing her with astonishment. Even had she not seen his expression, his uncharacteristic use of even mild profanity would have alerted her that she had taken him by surprise.
“Hey, Lizzy, is everything okay?” It was Roger Stonefield, car keys jingling in his hand.
“Just fine,” Elizabeth answered, forcing a note of false cheer into her voice. “Where are you headed?”
“We’re running out of ice, so I’m off to get some. Believe it or not, Jordan is sitting in for me on the drums. Apparently he played in a rock band in college. And Charles is up there with his sax.” He glanced at William and then back at Elizabeth, hesitated for a moment, and then shrugged. “I guess I’ll see you later.”
Roger strode off, whistling “Naughty Baby.” As soon as he was gone, William muttered, “We might as well be in the middle of Grand Central Station.”
“Let’s go upstairs. We won’t be bothered there.”
He hesitated, and then nodded curtly. “All right.”
Elizabeth turned to enter the lower lobby and head for the elevators, but she realized that she didn’t have her keys. She sighed. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
As she entered the party room, Kitty approached her, an odd gleam in her eye that Elizabeth suspected was the result of too many bottles of beer. “Lizzy, I put the cake in the kitchen. You left the box out on a table.”
“Oh, thanks.” Elizabeth forced a smile onto her face. “I was on my way in there when you and Lydia stopped me, and I guess I forgot.”
“I knew you wanted it kept a secret till later, and I can certainly see why.” Kitty giggled, her eyes huge with merriment. “Nice cake! Lydia was impressed that you chose it.”
“She was?” Elizabeth couldn’t imagine why Lydia would find Judith Leyster’s slightly modified self-portrait even remotely impressive.
“Oh, definitely. She’s already picked out the part she wants to eat.” Kitty’s laugh was almost a whoop.
There wasn’t time to chat about the cake, not with William waiting outside, no doubt becoming more imperious and emotionally inaccessible by the moment. “Well, thanks for taking care of it.” She fetched her keys from the kitchen counter and hurried from the room before anyone else could delay her.
1 “Naughty Baby,” words and music by George and Ira Gershwin. Lyrics entered public domain 1/1/2020. Sung by Maureen McGovern on Naughty Baby: Maureen McGovern Sings Gershwin, © 1989, CBS Records. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.