Content advisory: As you already know, Elizabeth had a traumatic experience in college involving a classmate named Michael, and you saw in the last chapter how this experience derailed Elizabeth’s and William’s first attempt at making love with each other. In this chapter, she tells William her story. My beta team and I have done our best to tell the story in a sensitive manner; however, those who might be triggered may wish to skip the part of the story after William and Elizabeth move into the den. If you do decide to skip that section, you’re safe to rejoin for the last two scenes.
William felt, rather than heard, Elizabeth’s arrival in the kitchen as he filled a china teapot with steaming water from the kettle. She looked small and fragile in his navy silk pajama top and matching robe. The sleeves drooped past her fingertips while the hem of the robe, designed to end at the wearer’s knees, hung to mid-calf.
Licking her lips, she flashed him a quick, tight smile, her eyes darting around the kitchen. He set down the kettle and moved toward her to engulf her in his protective embrace, but she stepped back, folding her arms across her chest.
They seated themselves at the small kitchen table, and he filled two teacups with the fragrant brew. She offered him a wan smile of thanks and sat staring into the cup, her hands wrapped around it as though she sought to warm herself.
William was helpless in the face of her pain, especially because he had, however unwittingly, caused it. He wanted—no, needed—to understand the cause of her distress, and to do whatever was necessary to return the sparkle to her eyes.
They sipped their tea, the occasional clatter of a cup settling into a saucer magnified in the thick, oppressive silence that engulfed them. Even the low hum of the refrigerator seemed unnaturally loud. At last he felt compelled to say something, anything, to try to get her to speak. “Are you feeling better?”
She nodded, giving him an utterly false smile that faded quickly. “Did you talk to Richard?”
“Yes. He said he had a place where he could spend the night.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Just that he wasn’t allowed to come home. So he’s gone till morning, and we won’t be disturbed.”
Elizabeth nodded again, staring out the windows at the city skyline.
William set down his cup. “Please tell me what’s wrong, cara. And please believe that, whatever I did, I never meant to hurt or frighten you.”
At last she emerged a millimeter or two from her shell. “It wasn’t you. Something happened that reminded me of … a bad experience I had once.” Her voice was unsteady and remote, with none of its usual animation.
“A bad experience?”
“Yes.” Again she warmed her hands on the cup, her eyes downcast.
He felt her drifting away, back into her shell. He took one of her hands in both of his, compelling her to raise her head and meet his gaze. “Please tell me about it.”
Her only answer was a shaky sigh that made him long to snatch her from her chair and pull her onto his lap, where he could comfort her. Instead, mindful of her evasive behavior in the kitchen, he forced himself to remain still. “I can see that it’s hard for you to talk about, but how else can I make sure that I don’t do something else that frightens you?”
“I know. I owe you an explanation, after making such a mess of things tonight.” She sighed. “Do you want the long version or the short one?”
“I’ll probably understand better if you tell me the long one.”
“All right, then.” She took a deep breath, a resolute expression coming over her face as she withdrew her hand from his grasp. “His name was Michael. I mentioned him to you once before. Michael Bullard, a name I always expected to see in lights some day, as the saying goes.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“In college, at the start of my freshman year. But first we have to go back to the summer before that.”
“Weren’t you at Interlochen then?”
She nodded. “I had a job waiting tables at a little café, and I took part in the summer music program. You came up, like you had the year before.” She again studied the contents of her teacup as she continued. “I went to all your performances; I even called in sick at work so I could sneak into a master class you gave on musical interpretation for piano. I got your autograph three times during your stay.” She looked up, a pained expression on her face. “And I can’t believe I’m admitting all this stuff.”
He reached out and stroked her hand where it lay on the table. “I bet you were the cutest groupie I ever had.”
Her lips twisted into a mirthless smile. “That’s a bet you’d be smart not to place. I wasn’t much of a success with guys in high school. What little I knew was mostly from watching Char. She always had at least one guy hanging around, usually two or three.”
“I can’t understand that. Granted, she’s striking looking and her confidence makes people notice her, but you’re so much fun to be around, and you’re absolutely beautiful.”
“I get called ‘pretty’ occasionally, I admit, but not back then. And ‘beautiful’ is an exaggeration.”
“Not in the least,” William replied with quiet fervor. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, inside and out.”
Elizabeth smiled at him, her eyes shiny with unshed tears. “You’ve always made me feel that way.”
“As for the rest, Charlotte is intelligent and witty, but so are you. And you’ve got warmth and sweetness that she lacks. I like Charlotte, but you’re the one any man would want to be with.”
“All evidence to the contrary. The thing is, Charlotte was comfortable flirting with guys, so they noticed her. I wasn’t, so they looked right past me. Plus, I was a bit of an ugly duckling when I was younger, and I didn’t make the most of the looks I had.”
“You, an ugly duckling? I don’t believe it.”
“Remind me some time to show you pictures from when I was twelve. I’d gotten over the awkward period by the time I was fifteen or so, but I never got in the habit of thinking about my appearance. Until recently, anyway.” Her shy smile went straight to his heart.
“There’s a question I want to ask, but it might embarrass you.”
She shrugged. “I don’t see how it could be worse than the embarrassment I’ve already heaped on my own head tonight.”
“Sixteen-year-old males don’t necessarily respond to inner warmth, but they do get turned on by … well, by ….” He struggled with the proper wording. “By a body that’s curvy in all the right places, like yours. I’m surprised they didn’t want to … or did that, um, develop later?” He gritted his teeth. That was smooth.
Elizabeth exhaled loud jets of air through her nostrils. “You’d be amazed what round-shouldered posture and shirts about three sizes too large can hide.”
“But if you wanted male attention—”
“Not that kind of attention. Maybe if I’d been older when it started ….” She gnawed her lip. “I was what my mother called an early bloomer. I hated the stares and the teasing from boys who’d been my friends until then. All of a sudden they were sneaking up behind me and snapping my bra strap, or trying to peek down the neckline of my shirt. It made me self-conscious about my body. Even ashamed, I guess. So I tried to hide it.”
He shook his head. “I hate to be stared at by strangers, but what you’re describing is worse.”
She paused and lifted the teacup to her lips, drinking slowly before she continued. “I dated some in high school, but most of the guys I knew were just friends. Pretty often, I’d console Char’s latest dumpee, and we’d end up being buddies. In a way, it was nice, because they usually thought of me as a little sister. It’s not every girl who has a dozen big brothers looking out for her.”
“I bet every one of them was secretly in love with you.”
“If they were, it was a well-kept secret. After Interlochen came Cincinnati Conservatory. I arrived there without a clue about how to handle myself with college guys. It seemed to me that most of the upperclassmen just wanted to find out what every freshman girl looked like naked.”
He winced. Within a few hours of meeting Elizabeth, he had already been mentally undressing her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I’d rather not say.”
From the arch of her eyebrows, he wondered if she had read his mind, but she didn’t comment, instead continuing her story. “At first I got asked out as often as other girls, but it never lasted. As soon as a guy tried to do anything more than kissing, I wouldn’t go out with him again. I always believed that sex should only happen between couples who loved each other. But looking back, I’m sure if I’d just calmly set some ground rules, most of the guys would have been okay with it.”
“It worked with me.” But his smile faded as he reconsidered the issue. “Up to a point.”
She continued as though she hadn’t heard him. “So basically I never gave anybody a chance. I mean, there were a few nice, polite guys who just wanted a good night kiss at the door. But we usually ended up just being friends.”
“No romantic spark.”
“And it wasn’t that I wanted to be the only virgin on campus—and of course I wasn’t the only one, though that’s how it felt sometimes. I just wanted to find someone who would care about me—all of me. And I’d feel the same way about him.”
“The way it is with us.”
She raised her eyes to meet his gaze and extended her hand to him, the first time she had sought his touch since her meltdown in the bedroom. He clasped her hand across the table.
After a brief silence, she released his hand. “I’m taking a long time getting to Michael, aren’t I? When you said I should tell the long version, you had no idea what you were in for.”
“Take all the time you need. I’m not going anywhere.”
“The day before classes started, a group of us went to get pizza after an orientation session. We left the auditorium, and just outside I saw a tall guy with dark, wavy hair who reminded me of you. It was Michael.”
William’s eyes narrowed. “He looks like me?”
“He was almost your height, but his upper body was more heavily muscled. He was into weight-lifting; he’d been a wrestler in high school.”
William frowned but didn’t comment. He wasn’t thrilled to have to compete with the memory of Mr. Rippling Pecs, her first love who had broken her heart.
She must have read his thoughts, because a hint of a smile touched her face. “I didn’t say that to criticize your physique. You’re very nicely put together.”
“It’s all right,” he said with a self-deprecating air. “I know I don’t have bulging muscles and a six-pack. Like Michael, apparently.”
She shrugged. “Why should you? You’ve got more important things to do than pump iron for hours every day. Besides, you’re a hundred times sexier than he could ever hope to be.”
William sat back in his chair and gave her a crooked grin. “Sorry; I didn’t mean to let my insecurities interrupt.”
She returned the smile, though hers faded fast. “He wasn’t as handsome as you are, but he was handsome enough, and there was definitely a resemblance. Especially in the eyes, though it was the expression even more than the color that struck me—an intensity, almost a mystery. I was instantly intrigued.”
“Did he pick you out of the gaggle of freshman girls?”
“As if. He looked right past me at a tall, willowy blonde who was part of our group. He invited himself along for pizza, and I barely ate a thing because I couldn’t take my eyes off him. But I didn’t register on his radar screen.”
“And you wanted to.”
Elizabeth sighed. “He was so confident, so sure of himself. He seemed to know everyone, and to be involved in everything. For the rest of that year, when I’d see him around campus he’d wink at me. He probably didn’t even recognize me, but I treasured all those winks. And I soon found out that not only was he the pet student of the drama department, he also had a singing voice to die for. It oozed out of his throat like warm honey, and that was it for me. I was in love … or at least hopelessly infatuated.” She paused, shaking her head, and raised her teacup to her lips before continuing. “Anyway, the faculty considered him Most Likely to Bring Honor and Glory to Our Alma Mater, and they gave him plenty of opportunities to prove himself. He had looks, talent, charisma … the whole package.”
“Mr. Perfect,” William muttered, hating Michael more with every passing minute.
Elizabeth nodded. “The sad part is, I was doing exactly what I resented when guys did it to me, basing my judgment on superficial factors. Not that I was the only one who had a crush on him, but I must have been the worst. The following year he finally learned my name when we had some classes together, which meant that when he passed me and winked, sometimes he said, ‘Hi, Elizabeth.’ The first time it happened, I was so excited I walked into a wall.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe how stupid and gullible I was.”
“No, you weren’t. You were young and innocent and in love for the first time.”
She shrugged and poured herself another cup of tea. “Wait till you’ve heard the rest before you decide. I’m sure he enjoyed knowing that a lot of girls worshipped him. Looking back, I can see how smug he was. I’m sure that inside he was laughing at us … at me. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight. I didn’t see it at the time.” She paused and took several sips of tea, her expression growing tense.
“Are you okay?” He asked softly.
She nodded, turning up her lips into a tight smile. “We’re getting closer to the difficult part.”
He pulled his chair closer to hers and stroked her arm, encouraged by the fact that she didn’t pull away.
With a deep breath, she continued. “Things went along this way till the spring of my junior year. And then I got my first big role, in ‘Guys and Dolls.’”
“Did you play the female mission worker? What was her name?”
￼“Sister Sarah Brown. And Michael was cast as Skye Masterson.”
“You know the play.”
“My mother was a Frank Sinatra fan, and he was in the movie version. I’ve seen it a couple of times. That must have been exciting, being cast opposite your idol.”
“Plus, it was a big deal to get the part. The other major roles went to seniors. This was the final production of the year, so it was their last chance before hitting the streets of New York or LA looking for work. Some of the senior girls resented that I was cast, but I always figured it was typecasting. I was as virginal and inexperienced as you could get, just like Sister Sarah.”
“And then did Michael finally notice you?”
She nodded. “It was as though he’d flipped a switch. He couldn’t have been more attentive. A few days after the cast announcement, he asked me to join him for coffee after a class. He did it again the next day, and the next. When he asked me out for Saturday night, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And once rehearsals started, we saw even more of each other. Early on, it was often just the lead actors and the director. And Michael and I had to work on our duets, and on the dance routine for the Havana sequence. After rehearsal, we’d go somewhere together, usually just for a drive.”
“I assume he tried the same sort of physical advances the other guys had?”
“Not at the start. He wanted to kiss me, but that was all. Then after about a week of seeing each other almost daily, he told me that he’d never met a girl like me, that I was special. That was the first time he tried anything beyond kissing, and I was so overwhelmed by his words that I let him do some … exploring with his hands. And things escalated from there.”
Her voice was bitter, full of self-recrimination, and his heart ached for her. “It’s okay,” he said quietly. “Just tell me.”
“He turned up the heat after that, using all the lines guys use when they’re trying to get a girl to have sex. How painful it was for him if he got excited and then didn’t … finish. That if I really cared about him I’d want it as much as he did … or at least I’d want to make him happy.”
William hadn’t used those particular lines on Elizabeth, but he had pressured her in other ways. He had never expected her story to reflect so poorly on his own behavior.
“And he said he couldn’t wait any longer, that if I didn’t give him what he wanted, he’d get it from somebody else.”
“A lot of pressure.”
“The only one that really bothered me was the last one. It was entirely too easy to imagine in full-screen Technicolor. I look back now and I realize that he probably was getting it from others at the same time he was dating me, but I was too naïve to realize it back then. But in spite of everything, I resisted. I knew I wasn’t ready to handle going ‘all the way’ with anybody, not even him.” She looked up, her eyes meeting his. “Are you sure you want to hear the rest?”
He rose from the table. “Absolutely. But let’s go into the den.”
“Because I’d like to sit closer to you, and that’ll be easier if we’re on the sofa. Unless you’d rather stay here.” He ached to hold her, but her earlier avoidance of his embrace was still fresh in his mind.
She bit her lip and nodded slowly. “The den is fine.”
William checked the teapot, finding it nearly empty. “Should I make more tea?”
“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”
He shrugged. “Of course not. Go make yourself comfortable; I’ll be right there.” As he carried the teapot into the kitchen, he noted with a pang that she hadn’t made one of her usual jokes about his abilities in the kitchen.
A few minutes later, William sauntered into the den carrying a tray bearing the pot and their teacups. Elizabeth wore a hint of a smile as he approached.
“This is so domestic, you serving me tea in your pajamas and robe.”
He grinned as he set the tray on the coffee table. “I’ve never been called domestic before, but I think I like it.” He passed her a fresh cup of tea, deposited his own cup on the end table, and then sat back, draping his arm over her shoulders. “Is this okay?”
“Yes, it’s nice.” She rested her head on his shoulder, though she didn’t melt against him as she usually did.
They sat quietly for a few minutes, and William wondered if he had made a mistake by interrupting her story to relocate to the den. “I don’t mean to push you, but I want to hear the rest.”
Elizabeth raised her head, attempting a smile, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “You’re being very patient. Thank you.” She reached for her teacup, sipped from it, and then cradled it in her hand. “All right, then. Where was I?” She stopped, drank from her teacup again, and returned it to the table before she began to speak in a low voice.
“So, as I was saying, things were escalating between us, physically speaking, but not fast enough for him, and in response he did some things that seemed contradictory. He became terribly jealous. He’d get angry if I so much as smiled at another guy. But he also started not showing up for dates, and later I’d hear that he’d been seen somewhere with one of his blondes draped all over him. Then for a few nights in a row he walked out after rehearsal without even a backward glance, when just a few days before he’d been anxious to get me alone in his car on some secluded road. I thought I was losing him, and I was sure it was because I wouldn’t go to bed with him. But I tried to trust my instincts, and not let myself get talked into something that didn’t feel right.”
She stopped and sipped from her teacup again. Setting it down, she settled back against his shoulder. He tightened his arm around her, his lips brushing the top of her head.
“After the third time he stood me up—it’s so embarrassing that I let it go on that long—I finally decided to break up with him. But he showed up at my door the next day with a weak excuse and a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him we were done.”
“Rehearsals ended and the production opened. It was a huge success; we got glowing reviews. But I couldn’t fully enjoy the accolades because I was so confused about Michael. I think that’s right where he wanted me, confused and insecure.”
“He sounds like a master manipulator.”
“And an excellent actor. I don’t know if there’s a real Michael, or if it’s just a series of roles that he plays.” She sighed and closed her eyes, shaking her head.
After a brief pause, she opened her eyes and continued. “The day before the final performance, I went shopping and spent way too much on a dress to wear to the cast party. It was even a bit low-cut.” She shrugged. “Not compared to the things most of my friends wore, but by my standards it was daring. And that’s what I was in the mood for, no more virginal Sister Sarah. I decided that I’d go to bed with him after the cast party. My roommate was away for the weekend, so it seemed almost like fate. I came up with all sorts of reasons why it was the right time. But the truth was, I was scared of losing him, especially with the play ending. I thought maybe if I finally gave him what he wanted, I could hold onto him. That was stupid of me, but plenty of other girls have made the same mistake.”
William pursed his lips and shifted.
“You look uncomfortable. I can stop if you don’t want to hear the rest,” Elizabeth said.
“No. I just don’t like the idea of anybody pressuring you.” Myself included.
“The cast party was in the lounge of my dorm. The room was hot and crammed with people. I don’t remember much else; I was too nervous about what was going to happen afterwards. But by the time we left the party, I had a serious case of the jitters. We got to my room, and almost before I knew what was happening he was all over me. He seemed to have several extra pairs of hands, and then he was pulling off my beautiful new dress; in fact, he was in such a hurry that he ripped the shoulder. I asked him to slow down, but he just kept grabbing my hands and putting them on his belt buckle, trying to get me to unzip his pants.
“Suddenly I was terrified; things were getting out of control. So I told him to slow down, that we needed to talk. He grabbed my wrists—hard—and said there was nothing to talk about. Either I loved him or I didn’t. If I didn’t, we were finished, but he hoped that wouldn’t happen, because, and I quote, ‘I love you, Elizabeth. And I never said that to a girl before.’
“If I’d been thinking clearly, I might have wondered why a man who loved me would threaten to leave me if I didn’t do what he wanted at the exact moment when he wanted it, and also why he would have been manhandling me. But all I could think was, ‘He loves me!’
“After that, I stopped resisting, but something just seemed wrong. He wasn’t acting like I always thought a man who loved a woman would act. There was no tenderness or even … I mean, whenever things had gotten heated between us before, he’d never been romantic or gentle. He just … well, he wanted what he wanted, and that was all he cared about. I just assumed all guys were like that when they got, um, aroused. But I thought being in love would change that. I thought …. ” She sighed and shook her head.
“But it was like I wasn’t even there. To him, I mean. Like I could have been a blow-up doll, and it would have been the same. A voice in my head was begging me to stop him, to tell him I’d changed my mind, that this wasn’t what love should be like. When he paused to … to put on a condom, I found my voice and told him that we had to stop, that I couldn’t do this after all. I jumped off the bed and grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around me.”
Elizabeth shivered and nestled closer to William. He stroked her hair, imagining her as she had been that night, lovely and innocent and trembling with fear. He had already known that Michael had lied about his feelings to get what he wanted, but in a moment of dawning horror, William realized that it had been much worse.
“I’ve never seen an angrier expression on a man’s face. He grabbed my arms so hard that I had bruises afterwards. He called me a tease—actually, he used a nastier term than that. He said he wouldn’t let me make a fool of him, and he’d show me what happened to girls who played games. Then he shoved me toward the bed. I lost my balance and hit my head on the bed frame. I was seeing stars, and before I could clear my head and try to stand up, he was on top of me and ….” Her voice trailed off into a sob. She buried her face against William’s chest, and he continued to caress her hair, rage welling up toward the monster who had stolen so much from her.
After a silence that felt interminable, she raised her head and continued in an unsteady voice. “I struggled to get loose at first, but he just tightened his hold until it hurt. He told me that if I didn’t stop struggling, he’d hurt me a lot worse. So I stopped fighting him, and instead I tried to redefine what was happening. I told myself that he was only doing this because I’d pushed him over the edge, that my charming Michael would reappear afterwards and apologize, and he’d tell me again that he loved me. It was an absurd thought; obviously I could never be with him again after this. But in that moment, it was easier to lie to myself than to accept what he was doing to me and how powerless I was to stop him. It was also better than letting myself feel the pain. Of course I’d heard that sometimes it hurts the first time, but ….” Elizabeth inhaled a shaky breath and paused for a moment, biting her lip.
“The first time. I’d always imagined that my first time with a man would be beautiful, almost lyrical. My head was stuffed full of romantic nonsense, golden candlelight and rose petals strewn over satin sheets. And instead ….”
She closed her eyes and bit her lip again. “To distract myself, I concentrated on the hands on the alarm clock on my bedside table. I’d never seen a second hand move so slowly. One, two, three … I counted the seconds as they passed. It didn’t really last all that long, according to the clock, but everything was in slow motion, like a nightmare that wouldn’t end, and I couldn’t wake up.”
She brushed a teardrop from her cheek and hunched forward, sipping her tea. William sat in miserable silence, haunted by the image of his beloved Elizabeth staring at the clock with pain-filled eyes, trying to block out a horrific reality.
“Afterwards, he got up, tossed the condom in the trash, and got dressed. I huddled under the covers trying not to cry. His eyes were cold and contemptuous, and he left without a word.
“I just lay there for a while. I don’t know how long, because I didn’t ever want to look at that clock again. I was so cold; I couldn’t stop shivering. I finally got up and took a shower, and I stayed in there for maybe an hour. I didn’t think I’d ever feel clean, or warm, again.”
“You went to the police first, didn’t you? So they could … collect evidence.”
“I never reported it.”
“You didn’t?” He would never have predicted that she would just let this crime go unpunished.
He saw a flash of resentment in her eyes. “You think that’s such an easy thing to do? And besides, I invited him to my room. I agreed to have sex with him. By the time I changed my mind, it was a little late, don’t you think? I got what I deserved for being stupid enough to believe his pathetic declaration of love. I sold myself for nothing.”
“Lizzy, none of this was your fault. He manipulated you and took advantage of your innocence. And you told him to stop. He had no right to ignore that.”
“But I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it.”
“Cara, please stop blaming yourself.” William’s heart was racing and his voice was tight with emotion. “There’s no excuse for what he did to you. I asked if you reported him because I hoped he was in prison. A torture chamber would be even more appropriate.”
Tears were swimming in her eyes, but her lips turned up in a tiny smile. “Why is it you can never find a torture chamber when you need one?”
“I can have one built any time you want. Just say the word.”
Still smiling, Elizabeth wiped away a tear as she settled back against William’s chest. “I thought everyone would blame me, and agree with Michael that I’d teased him. And I guess in a way I did, but I didn’t mean to. He had me so upset and confused that I didn’t know what to do. I know I frustrated him with my indecision.”
“Even if that was true, frustration is no excuse for taking something by force. And you should listen to me, because I’m quite an authority on frustration at this point.”
She smiled through her tears and pressed a soft kiss to his jaw.
“What happened when you saw him around campus after that?” he asked, stroking her cheek.
Elizabeth sighed. “It was awful. He was smug and disdainful. If he spoke to me at all, it was to call me the ‘Ice Maiden.’ But one of my friends delivered the final blow. She was dating a guy who’d had a small role in the play. A few days after … that night, she said she had to tell me something about Michael. You might remember that in the play, the reason Skye Masterson pursues Sister Sarah is because of a bet with Nathan Detroit, who runs the local crap game. It’s essentially a bet that Masterson can compromise her virtue.”
“Michael made a similar bet with the student who played Nathan Detroit, about me.”
William couldn’t speak as he choked back his rage.
“I understand it was for $200, and he had until the night of our final performance to get it done. I suppose I became a challenge to his ego, too, proof that he could succeed where others had failed and seduce even the most reluctant virgin. And then brag about it to his buddies.”
“That miserable bastard.” William’s stomach was tied in knots. He clenched his jaw and held her closer. “I wish you’d told me all of this sooner, Lizzy. If I’d had any idea—”
“What would you have done? I know you think you can control the moon and the stars, and the planets too on a good day, but even you can’t rescript the past. Besides, how could I tell you? I felt so stupid and gullible, and so … degraded.”
“Stop it, Lizzy. It’s his fault, not yours.” Bile rose in William’s throat.
She continued, showing no sign that she’d heard him. “I never meant to put you through all of this. I thought I’d finally left it in the past and moved on. But tonight, suddenly I was back in college, and Michael was there, and ….” She stopped, swallowing hard, and continued in a shaky voice thick with tears. “You didn’t deserve any of this. You’ve been patient and sweet, and I love you so much. I’m so sorry.”
She buried her face against William’s chest, sobbing, her tears soaking his bathrobe. She offered no resistance when he coaxed her onto his lap, holding her close to his heart.
Before long, she drew a long, slow breath and raised her tear-stained face from his chest. “I’m sorry to turn into a weeping damsel in distress.”
“Hush, cara,” he whispered. “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”
“I’ve never told that story from start to finish before.” She dabbed at her eyes and cheeks with a napkin from the tea tray.
He smoothed her hair away from her face. “Not even to Jane or Charlotte?”
“They’ve heard most of it, but I could never bring myself to tell them about the bet. It was too humiliating.”
He was touched by this poignant evidence of her trust in him. “Anyone can be duped by a master manipulator, Lizzy.”
Her tone was pensive as she continued. “It’s different to tell the story all at once, to see the whole pathetic arc stretching back to the first time I laid eyes on him. Or, I guess, the first time I laid eyes on you. I might not have fallen so hard if he hadn’t resembled you.”
“Have you seen him since college?”
“Once, last spring. Some friends and I went to a place in the Village and he was tending bar.”
“I got someone else to order my drink so I wouldn’t have to talk to him. But our eyes met once and he winked at me, just like he’d always done. It scared me to death until I noticed him doing it to all the girls.”
“He didn’t recognize you?”
“I don’t think so. And in a way, that made it worse. Here I was, still haunted by him, and he didn’t even remember me.”
“If he ever crosses your path again, I’ll kill him with my bare hands.”
“Then I have another reason to hope I never see him again,” she replied, raising his hand to her lips and kissing his fingers, “because these hands are much too precious to waste on someone like him.”
She rested her head on his chest and fell silent. He reached over to extinguish the lamp on the end table, throwing the den into deep, comfortable shadows. Gradually she relaxed against his body. He rested his chin on top of her head, closing his eyes. “You’re mine now,” he whispered, “and I’m not going to let anyone hurt you ever again.”
The quiet interval in William’s embrace had done much to restore Elizabeth’s composure, and at last she sat up, depositing a warm but brief kiss on his lips.
“Thank you so much for the way you’ve taken care of me tonight,” she said. “And I’m sorry I’ve made your life so difficult because of my problems.”
“Don’t say that. We’re supposed to share our problems, aren’t we?”
“Well, it certainly has turned out that way.” She offered him a rueful smile, but from his troubled expression, it seemed that he didn’t notice. “Is something wrong?”
He sighed. “I hate to bring this up, but there’s something I need to ask you.”
“It’s okay. You know my deepest secret. I have nothing left to hide.”
“I’ve been sitting here thinking about what you’ve told me. And the part that’s unclear is, what happened tonight to make you think about him? Was it because he resembles me? It had to be more than just being in bed with a man, because ….” William’s voice trailed off and he pressed his lips together.
She took his hand in both of hers, toying with his long, beautifully shaped fingers. “It was a combination of things. The first thing—and don’t blame yourself for this—was when you rolled on top of me. I was sort of pinned beneath you, like he did to me, and it scared me. That seems to be the thing most likely to make me panic.”
His eyes filled with remorse. “So everything you went through tonight was my fault after all.”
“Of course not. How could you have known? And I still might have gotten past it, but I looked off to the side, trying to take a few deep breaths and calm down, and I saw the clock on your nightstand. It’s an analog clock with a second hand, and it looks a lot like the one I watched that night. And then I was back in my dorm room and ….” She shivered.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. Now I’ve upset you again.”
“No, I’m okay. I can deal with remembering. What happened earlier tonight wasn’t just remembering. I was reliving it. When I said I was back in my dorm room, that’s exactly how it felt. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t seem to find my way back to reality.”
“Has this happened to you before?”
She nodded. “At first the least little thing would send me back there, but these days it’s a rare occurrence, thank goodness.”
“My poor Lizzy. I had no idea you were dealing with such a huge burden.”
She blinked back tears. His sympathy had been the greatest threat to her composure all evening. Determined not to cry again, she wriggled out of his arms and jumped to her feet. “I should change back into my clothes and drive home now.”
He stood and took her hands in his. “You shouldn’t drive yourself home, not after what you’ve been through. If you insist on going home, I’ll drive you, and I’ll pick you up in the morning. But I wish you’d stay the night instead.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
William’s arms encircled her waist. From the determined look in his eyes, she knew that he intended to win this skirmish. “I need to be sure that you’re going to be okay. And I can only do that if you’re here, under my roof.”
“I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“But I’m going to worry all the same. I know you can take care of yourself, Lizzy, but this once, let me take care of you.”
“You’ve been doing that all evening, and doing a wonderful job, too.”
“Then haven’t I earned the right to keep doing it for a while longer?” He unleashed one of the deadliest tools in his arsenal, the lazy grin that rarely failed to weaken her resistance.
“The thing is, Jane might be waiting up, wondering where I am.”
He shrugged. “Then call her. But she probably thinks you’re asleep in my arms, in my bed, which I think is an excellent plan.”
Elizabeth inhaled a sharp breath. She wasn’t ready to resume what they had started earlier, but obviously he was. She opened her mouth to speak, but he continued in a matter-of-fact tone.
“And before you draw any erroneous conclusions, I’m not talking about making love. I’m talking about kissing you good night, holding you while we sleep, and kissing you awake in the morning.”
The thought of spending a night in the warm, protective haven of William’s arms sounded much better than her empty bed at home. But he had already suffered so much frustration at her hands. “Won’t it be hard—” She blushed at her unintentional double entendre. “I mean, won’t it be difficult for you if we sleep together, but we don’t make love?”
“Oh, I have no doubt it’ll be hard,” he drawled, a wicked glint in his eye.
Her blush deepened, but she couldn’t help smiling. He rarely made off-color remarks, and perhaps because of their rarity, his excursions into innuendo never failed to amuse her.
His smile softened and he touched her cheek. “Seriously, cara, my body may not understand, but that doesn’t matter. I’d never try to take advantage of the situation.”
“Of course not. I trust you.” And she did, more than she had realized until now.
He scrutinized her for a moment. “If you’d rather have privacy, you can sleep in my aunt and uncle’s bedroom. We’d just have to hope the floral overload didn’t make you dream about evil carnations chasing you down the street, trying to inflict a bad case of hay fever.”
“That décor really does offend you.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad in the dark. And if you had a nightmare or just needed to be held, I’d be only a few steps away. But I’d probably lie awake all night wondering if you were okay, and trying to talk myself out of sneaking down the hall to check on you. I’d sleep much better if you’d let me watch over you at close range.”
She couldn’t resist his coaxing tone or the warm entreaty in his eyes. “Okay. That sounds nice.”
“Good. Now, would you like another cup of tea, or are you ready for bed?”
Elizabeth yawned and rubbed her eyes. “I’m tired, and you look like you are, too. I think it’s time for bed.”
He led her down the hallway and into his bedroom. She felt a quick flash of fear on returning to the scene of her earlier meltdown, but she mastered it quickly. Only the clock, glaring at her from its perch on the nightstand, made her uneasy, but she forced herself to look away.
William was watching her closely. “Are you okay to sleep in the pajama top, or would you like something else? I’d offer you some pajama bottoms too, but they’d probably just fall off.”
“Or I’d trip over them.” She glanced down at herself. His pajama top covered her almost to her knees. “This is fine, unless you want to wear it yourself and lend me something else.”
“No, it’s yours. I usually wear boxers to bed, and a tee shirt unless it’s warm.” He grinned at her. “But tonight I’ll wear the pajama bottoms. Then we’ll be two halves of a matched set.”
She smiled, charmed by his efforts to put her at ease. “And I guess it’s my turn to ask if I can borrow a toothbrush.”
“I’ll check the linen closet, if I can find it. I don’t know what’s in there, but I suppose there might be a toothbrush and soap and things like that.”
“I don’t understand. If you don’t know what’s in the linen closet, or even where it is, what do you do when you need a new bar of soap for the shower?”
He shrugged. “That never happens.”
“Do you mean to tell me that little soap elves run around at night, and if a bar of soap is getting small they put out a new one for you?”
He shrugged. “It’s the housekeeper, not elves.”
She shook her head, her lips pursed. Sometimes she forgot how profoundly spoiled he was.
William disappeared into the hall, and Elizabeth passed through the doorway into his bathroom. She stopped in front of the mirror, inspecting her reflection. The last time she had stood in this spot she had been a mess, with disheveled hair and haunted eyes. Her hair didn’t look much better, but her eyes, though still red, held a more hopeful expression. After a quick trip to the kitchen to fetch her purse and a few minutes spent taming her hair, she thought she looked presentable again.
She splashed water on her face, the cool droplets soothing her skin, and then realized that she didn’t have a towel. After a moment of hesitation, she removed a hand towel hung above the sink. As she patted her face dry, she sensed a light trace of William’s scent. She buried her nose in the towel and inhaled him.
A knock at the door interrupted her reverie. “Come in,” she called out. It was William, bearing a plastic-wrapped toothbrush and a stack of towels which he deposited on the counter.
“Thank you,” she said. “May I borrow some toothpaste?”
“Of course.” He opened a drawer beside the sink. “I’m afraid I’m not much of a host. The only reason I remembered towels was because I saw them in the linen closet. And I’m pleased to announce that there are several bars of soap in there too.”
Elizabeth flung her arms around his neck. He nearly stumbled, caught off guard. “Thank you so much,” she whispered in his ear, hugging him fiercely.
“You’re welcome, but tell me what I did. If this is how you’re going to thank me, I want to make sure I keep doing it.”
“You were just … yourself,” she said, kissing him.
William returned the kiss, his lips lingering on hers with a gentle but seductive touch. He made a soft sound in his throat, somewhere between a sigh and a groan, and tightened his arms around her. “My sweet Lizzy,” he murmured. “Ti amo, cara.”
“I love it when you speak Italian.” Despite her emotional exhaustion, desire shimmered through her at the sound of his deep, husky voice speaking those tender words.
“Baciami,” he whispered.
“What does that mean?”
Elizabeth was happy to comply.
A few minutes later, William strode out of the bathroom and halted abruptly, momentarily overwhelmed by a sight he had long imagined. Elizabeth, her hair loose around her shoulders, was perched in the middle of the bed, waiting for him. His gaze never left her as he moved toward the bed. Her smile seemed restrained, but her eyes were soft with affection.
“Which side do you sleep on?” she asked.
“That’s up to you. Whichever side you choose, plan on sharing it with me.” He drew back the covers and joined her on the bed. “Did you call Jane?”
“No. I decided it was too late. Besides, if she were worried she’d have called.”
“You seem like you’re feeling better.”
“I am. A wonderful guy took excellent care of me tonight. By the way, what happened to the clock?”
He had hidden it in the bottom drawer of the nightstand while she was in the bathroom. “Don’t give it a second thought. It’s gone.” He cupped her shoulders, feeling their warmth beneath the thin layer of silk.
Conversation ceased as they shared a series of sweet, languorous kisses that left William’s entire body thrumming with desire that he forced himself to ignore.
“I guess we’d better get some sleep,” she said softly, unwittingly exacerbating his physical dilemma by nuzzling his ear. She lay back, gazing up at him as her head sank into a soft down pillow, so lovely that it almost hurt to look at her.
He lay on his side facing her, supporting his head on one arm, and tangled his fingers in her hair where it lay on the pillow. “I love you,” he murmured.
“I’m glad we finally got around to saying it.”
“I said it a long time ago, but I’ve wanted to hear it from you for … it seems like forever.”
She drew his head to hers for a warm, leisurely kiss. His senses were bathed in softness: the dim light from the bedside lamp, the cozy bed, and most of all, Elizabeth nestled close to him.
He switched off the lamp, and in the darkness slid back to her and enfolded her in his arms. “Do you have any plans for the next five or ten years?”
“There might be one or two things on my calendar. Why?”
“I’d recommend that you cancel them, because I don’t think I’m letting you out of this bed for at least a decade. After that, we’ll see.”
He silenced her quiet laugh with his kiss, sinking gladly into the comfort of the night, the bed, and above all, her presence.