“Oh, come on, Mr. Punctual,” Elizabeth retorted, leaning over for a quick kiss. “We’re only a few minutes late.”
“It was my fault,” Jane said. “I didn’t call for the taxi early enough.” She smiled at William. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you. It’s good to be back. I hope you’ve been well.”
William took Jane’s hand in his briefly, but Elizabeth noticed that his smile was subdued. She could still sense his aloofness where Jane was concerned, though she knew he was trying, and for her sake. But how could anybody not like Jane?
“Did you see Charles at all while I was in New York?” he asked.
Jane nodded. “He came up to play with the group last Saturday night.”
It had been Charles’s second trip to San Francisco since the night of Charlotte’s birthday party. His stated purpose was to perform with Golden Gate Jazz; however, on both evenings he and Jane had found time for private conversation. Still, Jane continued to insist that that their romantic relationship was over.
William approached the hostess station. “The rest of our party is here now,” he said.
“Yes, sir. We’ll have your table ready in a few minutes. The others went to the bar, if you’d care to join them.”
William squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. “Our reservation was for 7:00, and it’s nearly ten past.”
“I’m sorry, sir. We had to rearrange things to accommodate the extra member of your party. And as you can see, it’s busy tonight.”
Though he had spoken calmly, Elizabeth could tell from the set of his jaw that William was annoyed by the delay. She threaded her arm through his. “Let’s go to the bar and order some drinks. They’re supposed to serve some interesting cocktails here.” She addressed the hostess. “You’ll come and get us when our table is ready?”
The hostess nodded, and Elizabeth led William firmly through the dimly-lit restaurant to the bar along the back wall, with Jane a few steps behind. “Relax,” she murmured. “I’m sure it’ll just be a few minutes, and she’s right; I forgot to call and tell them there would be five of us instead of four.”
“I know, I know,” he grumbled. “Patience and tolerance.”
“That’s my guy,” she murmured, stroking the sleeve of his dark gray blazer. “You look even more handsome than usual tonight.” He had paired the jacket with a lightweight black sweater instead of his usual white dress shirt. She suspected that his closet was filled with dozens of identical white shirts, all flawlessly tailored and crisply pressed.
“Trying to distract me with idle flattery?”
“You bet.” She squeezed his arm. “Is it working?”
A reluctant grin lit up his face. “As always.” His eyes skimmed her slowly from head to toe. “And speaking of flattery—”
“The William Darcy what?” Elizabeth’s eyes darted from Richard to William.
“Never mind,” William replied, glaring at Richard. “Let’s establish a cardinal rule. Don’t listen to a word he says, because none of it is true.”
“That’s a good rule,” Sonya said, her expression deadpan.
“Jane, I’d like you to meet the comedy team of Fitzwilliam and Lawrence,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “Better known as Sonya Lawrence, William’s assistant, and Richard Fitzwilliam, his ne’er-do-well cousin. This is my sister, Jane Bennet.”
Sonya and Jane exchanged polite greetings. Richard deposited his glass on the bar and switched on a dazzling smile as he accepted Jane’s proffered hand. “Pay no attention to these slurs against my character. They’ll give you a completely twisted picture of me.”
Sonya and Jane seated themselves on barstools while the others clustered around, examining the menu of signature cocktails and placing their orders. While they chatted and waited for their drinks, Elizabeth examined her surroundings.
The overall effect might have been best described as “industrial chic.” It had the look of a warehouse, with high ceilings and minimalist décor consisting mostly of polished wood. Large windows opened onto an open-air courtyard festooned with twinkle lights. A movie was being projected on the rear wall.
Jane craned her neck to peer at the screen, which was partially visible through the windows. “It looks like Cinema Paradiso.” She consulted a card on the bar. “Yes, it is. I just love that movie.”
The others nodded or spoke up in agreement, except for William. Elizabeth couldn’t tell if he was staring at her, or just staring absently with no idea where his eyes were trained. She stepped closer to him, slipping her hands beneath his jacket and resting them on his waist. “I know you’d be more comfortable at Boulevard or Acquerello,” she said quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear, “but I thought it would be fun for Sonya to go someplace a bit out of the ordinary. And even though I didn’t know Richard was coming, I think it’s a good choice for him, too.”
He brushed a wisp of hair off her cheek, and his hands came to rest on her shoulders. “Don’t worry about me. I’m happy to be here.”
“You don’t need to pretend. I saw that discontented look on your face a minute ago.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t about the restaurant. I was thinking how much I missed you while I was gone, and how much I’m going to miss you when I have to leave again.”
She slid her hands up his chest. “But isn’t it kind of silly to worry about not being together right now, when we’re together?”
“I tend to do that, don’t I?” he said with a sheepish grin. “Oh, and allow me to apologize.”
“For this.” His hands cradled her head and he bent down, his lips lingering on hers. The sweetness of the kiss made her long for another, and another after that. But they weren’t alone, and she knew that was the reason for his pre-emptive apology. They usually limited their public displays of affection to hand-holding.
“You’re forgiven,” she whispered, and his sweet, infectious grin provoked a wide smile from her. They touched foreheads, eyes closed, sharing a blissful private moment in the middle of the crowded room.
“Hey, lover boy, your drinks are ready.”
William kissed the tip of her nose and released her, haughtily ignoring Richard’s jibe.
“Don’t let Richard bother you,” Sonya murmured in Elizabeth’s ear, “He’s probably just jealous and can’t stand to admit it.”
Elizabeth’s expression was rapturous as she slid another spoonful of chocolate pot de crème into her mouth. The movie had ended and begun again as they sat in the courtyard enjoying their meal, though they had paid the film scant attention beyond an occasional comment on a favorite scene.
They had enjoyed the food, from the several varieties of oysters Elizabeth and Richard gleefully sampled to the desserts and after-dinner drinks over which they were lingering now. The weather was perfect for al fresco dining, though as nightfall brought cooler temperatures Elizabeth was glad for the long sleeves on her lightweight sweater.
The most memorable element of her evening had been William’s intoxicating presence beside her: the deep accents of his voice, the breadth of his shoulders beneath his soft black sweater, and the warmth of his body whenever he brushed against her. He had done so frequently, usually accompanied by a dark-eyed, lazy smile.
She savored another spoonful of the pot de crème, licking her lips in delight. Then she refilled the spoon and extended it, brimming with the rich concoction, toward William. “Want a taste?”
His eyes flared, but it was her lips that appeared to command his attention, not the spoon. “Yes, please,” he murmured in a husky voice.
Their heated gazes locked as she pushed the spoon gently between his open lips. When she withdrew the spoon slowly, he breathed, “Delicious.”
A loud “Ahem” from Richard reminded Elizabeth that they weren’t alone. Flustered, she turned her attention back to the others at the table. Jane and Sonya were quietly discussing San Francisco weather, politely failing to notice the heat radiating from the other side of the table. Richard gave William a brash grin and raised his glass in a mocking salute.
Elizabeth hated couples who engaged in what amounted to public foreplay; she needed to regain her composure. She smiled across the table at Richard. “I was surprised you were willing to come with us tonight, with the Yankees playing such an important game right across the bay.” The American League baseball playoffs were in progress, and tonight’s game was taking place in Oakland.
“Will told you I’m a baseball fan?”
“I remember it from the Juilliard reception. You talked to my thesis advisor about the Yankees.”
“That’s right; I remember now. There’s a truth and symmetry in the game that I find remarkable. I know that sounds like philosophical crap, but ….” Richard shrugged. “I’m a philosopher by training, so I come by it honestly.”
“Oh, no, is he talking about baseball?” Sonya groaned. “Quick, somebody, find some toothpicks to prop our eyelids open. We’re going to need them.”
“I’ll try to stop before everybody gets to the eyes-glazing-over stage.”
“His favorite movie is Bull Durham. And he’s constantly quoting from a book called Baseball and Philosophy.” Sonya rolled her eyes.
William nodded. “One time Sonya brought The Quotations of Chairman Mao to a meeting and they played Dueling Quotations. I seriously considered jumping out the office window after about fifteen minutes.”
“Ignore them,” Richard said to Elizabeth, waving a dismissive hand at his detractors. “It’s a remarkable book. One of my professors at Yale wrote one of the essays, called ‘Baseball and the Search for an American Moral Identity.’ It should be required reading for everyone in this country.”
Elizabeth found his enthusiasm, despite its unlikely catalyst, charming. It was interesting to see Richard minus his trademark devil-may-care irreverence. It occurred to her that perhaps William wasn’t the only member of the Darcy family who built walls to hide behind. “William said that you took him to his first game when he was nine.”
“My father took both of us—Aunt Anna wouldn’t let Will go anywhere without an adult back then—but it was my idea. When he was a little older, we were allowed to go on our own. Will didn’t love baseball the way I did, but I think he liked the change of pace.”
“It was like running away, but it wasn’t against the rules,” William remarked.
Richard snorted. “It wasn’t much like running away, with Allen driving us there and back. Gran and Aunt Anna didn’t think much of the idea of us—mostly Will, I don’t think they gave a rip in my case—taking the subway to the Bronx.”
Considering what Elizabeth had already heard about William’s sheltered childhood, that didn’t surprise her. “What about tomorrow’s game? Are you going?”
“You bet. Sonya dug around and found me some tickets. That’s assuming the Yankees win tonight; otherwise it’s all over. Are you a fan?”
“A casual fan, you might say. In fact, William and I went to a Giants game a few weeks ago.”
Elizabeth had watched in affectionate amusement that evening as William, with great solemnity, maintained a scorecard, a skill he had learned in those early days with Richard. The Giants had lost, but it had been a pleasant evening all the same, enhanced by the magnificent views afforded by the ballpark’s bayside location.
“A good cigar would be just the thing right now.” Richard leaned back in his chair, staring into his glass of port.
“I didn’t know you smoked.” Elizabeth said, wrinkling her nose.
“I don’t, except a cigar now and then. Even the old man over there has been known to indulge in a good cigar on occasion.”
Elizabeth grimaced at William. “You’re kidding.”
He shrugged, sipping his cognac. “I’ve probably had at most half a dozen cigars in my life, all at Pemberley.”
“You’re making me want one even more,” Richard said in a plaintive tone. “They have a local brand in Barbados that’s damn good,” he explained. “I bring home a box or two every time we go down there. Plus some Cubans, of course.”
“Charles told me a story once about the three of you smoking cigars at Pemberley,” Jane replied. “He said Mrs. Darcy smelled the smoke and threw you out of the house. Apparently she was pretty angry.”
“I’m sure she was,” Sonya said with a sidelong glance at the two men. “Mrs. Darcy hates smoking, and she especially loathes cigar smoke. One time Richard thought he’d get away with lighting up in the roof garden at the New York house. Let’s just say he never tried it again.”
“I didn’t hear about that,” William said. “Sorry I missed the fun.”
“But you can imagine the lecture I got. You know what happens when Gran gets her dander up.”
William’s grandmother sounded even more formidable than Elizabeth had gathered from their two encounters in New York. Thanksgiving in New York was going to be interesting, to say the least. She sighed loudly, earning her a concerned glance from William.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly. He’d had his arm stretched across the back of her chair since finishing dinner, and now he rested his hand lightly on her shoulder.
“I’m fine. What about you? You look tired.” She had noticed him yawning behind his hand occasionally for the past half hour or so. Although his health was improving, she knew that he still grew fatigued easily.
William set down his empty glass. “I think jet lag is catching up with me. Is everyone finished?” He signaled a passing server for their check.
“I’m ready for a good night’s sleep,” Sonya said with a yawn. “This restaurant was a great choice, Elizabeth. Thanks for including me, even though I’m just the hired help.”
Richard snorted. “If we ever started treating her like the hired help, you’d hear the squawking all the way downtown. Besides, I’m just part of William’s entourage, too.”
“Is that what you tell the women you meet?” Elizabeth asked.
“Fat chance. I tell them I’m one of the idle rich, with piles of money but no ambition. You’d be amazed how well that works. I second what Sonya said about the restaurant, by the way. Great choice.”
“I’m glad you liked it.”
“And now, since my cousin and his hired help are such wimps, it falls to me to uphold the reputation of New Yorkers. What do you say, Jane? Want to show me some hot night spots?”
Elizabeth didn’t like this development; she didn’t want to risk Jane becoming Richard’s next conquest. But Jane accepted the invitation before Elizabeth could intervene.
“I want to go to the ladies’ room before we leave,” Elizabeth said, pushing back her chair with more force than she had intended. “Jane, want to come with me?”
As soon as they reached the ladies’ room, Elizabeth went on the offensive. “Be careful with Richard. Sure, he’s charming, but from what I’ve heard he’s the original Mr. Love ‘em and Leave ‘em. And his definition of love is one night between the sheets.”
Jane smiled at Elizabeth’s reflection in the mirror. “Don’t worry, Lizzy. He’s not my type, but he’s intelligent and fun to be around, so what’s the harm in spending an evening with him? Besides, this way you and William can be alone for a while.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. You’re doing this for my sake.”
“You and William need some time alone together. It was so obvious tonight. In fact ….” Jane regarded Elizabeth intently, and then shook her head. “No, never mind.”
“Well … okay, I guess it’s best if I just say this. If things go farther tonight than they have so far, and you’re at our place and need protection—”
“That’s not going to happen. Not yet.” But even as she said the words, she wondered if they were true.
“Sometimes things happen that we don’t expect. Just in case, there’s a box of condoms in my nightstand.”
“Thanks, Jane, but I’m not—we’re not going to—” Elizabeth couldn’t seem to finish her sentence.
The door opened, and Sonya peeked in. “William arranged for some taxis, and they’ll be here in just a minute. Everything okay?”
Elizabeth took a shaky breath. “Everything’s fine. Ready to go, Jane?”
William stood near the bar, waiting for them. He took Elizabeth’s hand and led her down the long hallway. She ordered her knees to stop trembling, but to no avail; apparently they were not in the mood to follow instructions. With a small shrug, she passed through the double doors and into the cool night air.
Outside the restaurant, the group said its farewells. Sonya took a taxi back to the Fairmont Hotel, Jane and Richard headed for parts unknown in another taxi, and Elizabeth found herself ensconced in a third with William. After giving the driver Elizabeth’s address, he settled back on the seat and slid his arm around her shoulders.
Elizabeth’s eyes were on Jane and Richard’s taxi, which was directly ahead. “I don’t like the idea of Richard going off who knows where with Jane. Don’t get me wrong; I like him. But I get the impression that he’s constantly on the prowl for a new conquest.”
“Don’t worry. While you were in the ladies’ room I told him to behave himself.” William’s fingers combed gently through her hair.
“Oh, and of course he always does exactly what you tell him.”
Grinning, William kissed her cheek. “Richard doesn’t spend many nights alone, but seduction and manipulation aren’t his style. He’s up front about what he wants, and he prefers women who want the same thing. Besides, I’m sure Jane can take care of herself.”
William had a point. Jane’s tendency to see only the best in people often provoked a protective response from Elizabeth, but in this particular area it was unnecessary. Jane had been besieged by male attention since her early teens and had long since learned to fend off unwanted overtures with grace and tact. “I guess you’re right.”
“Good. Now let’s forget about them and concentrate on us.” He dipped his head and she felt the potent sensation of his lips nuzzling her neck. His deep voice resonated in her ear. “Do you know what I dreamed about every night in New York?”
“No.” The word sounded like a whimper, the result of the gentle scrape of his teeth against her ear lobe.
“You, cara,” he whispered, “lying in my arms, in my bed.”
A shiver coursed through her. “William—”
“Shhh.” He drew his thumb slowly along her lips and cupped her cheek in his hand. As she watched, mesmerized, he lowered his head slowly. His lips teased hers in a persuasive caress, his tongue tracing the outline of her lips. She wound her arms around his neck and pressed against him, and the kiss exploded in a tidal wave of mutual hunger.
His hand slipped under her sweater, his feather-light touch raising goose bumps on a journey across her torso. He dragged his mouth away from hers, and she felt his warm breath on her face as he spoke in a deep, throaty growl. “I’m tired of dreaming. I’m tired of aching for you day and night, of wanting you almost more than I can stand. Haven’t we waited long enough?”
Yes. Yes, we have. I want you. Her mind recoiled from this reckless sentiment, but her body, firmly in the driver’s seat, quivered with need. His dark eyes bored into hers and his fingers caressed her until she moaned deep in her throat. Starving to feel his kiss again, she buried her hands in his hair and pulled his head down to hers. He pressed her back against the seat, his greedy mouth plundering hers, her last shreds of resistance vaporized by the heat of the kiss.
She tugged at his thin sweater, pulling it out of the waistband of his trousers with trembling hands. She had to touch him, to share with him some small measure of the rapture his caresses were bestowing on her. He groaned against her mouth as she spread her fingers across his stomach, stroking along its flat planes. He felt so warm, so strong.
William raised his head, an almost wild look in his eyes. His voice had a desperate edge as he rasped, “Yes, cara. Please, touch me—”
The cab lurched to a stop as a pedestrian, illuminated in the headlights, ran across the street directly in front of them. The driver honked his horn, gesturing angrily.
“Are you okay?” William enfolded her securely in his arms, his chest heaving.
At first her mind was too muddled to formulate an answer. Then the world snapped into focus and she became painfully aware of her surroundings. A glance out the window revealed that they were only a few minutes from her building.
“I’m … I’m fine.”
“Good,” he drawled, his mouth smothering hers as he resumed his tantalizing caresses.
Her mind clawed its way back into control. She was being fondled—and doing some fondling herself—in the back seat of a taxi, and the driver was probably enjoying the show in his rear-view mirror. That might have been why he hadn’t seen the pedestrian until it was almost too late. She pulled her mouth away from William’s and whispered urgently, “Stop. Please.”
He frowned at her, a drugged look in his eyes. “What?”
“It would be better if we waited till—”
“I don’t want to hear the word ‘wait’ anymore.”
“I just mean that we should wait until—”
William yanked his hand out from under her sweater as though her flesh had burned him. “I am so damned tired of waiting,” he said in a tight voice. “I’ve done nothing but wait for months.”
The cab pulled up in front of her building. Elizabeth tried again. “Would you please give me a chance to explain? I was trying to say that—”
“You don’t need to explain.” She could see him struggling to hide his emotions, but the bitterness in his voice was unmistakable. “If waiting is what you want, then we’ll wait some more. I’m getting very good at it.”
Elizabeth sighed loudly, her teeth clenched. She was surprised when, instead of paying the driver, William leaned forward and said, “Please wait a minute.”
He jumped out of the taxi and strode around to her side, opening the door. As she emerged, his cool gaze met hers. He walked beside her to the building entrance in silence as she fumbled in her purse for her keys. When they reached the door, he turned to face her. “Good night, Lizzy.”
“You’re not going to come up for a while?”
His face was expressionless. “I think it’s best if I go home and get some rest. I’m tired, and I might say something I’ll regret later.”
As far as Elizabeth was concerned, that train had already departed the station. But he looked exhausted, his bleary eyes lacked their usual intensity, and his shoulders slumped in contrast to his typical upright posture. This was where his condition gave him an unfair advantage. She found herself feeling sorry for him instead of whacking him upside the head like he deserved.
She spoke in a measured tone. “All right, maybe that’s best for now. But when you’re ready to listen to reason, I have some things to say and I intend for you to hear them.”
Elizabeth unlocked the door to the lobby. She paused in the doorway and turned back with an inquiring look, giving him one more chance to change his mind. He simply stared at her, his hands in his pockets. Shrugging, she entered the building, leaving him alone on the front step.