Fifteen minutes later, William found himself, once again, at Top of the Mark. He and Elizabeth had entered the penthouse only to discover a trail of clothing beginning by the front door and leading—he assumed, as he hadn’t followed it to be sure—to Richard’s bedroom. This, combined with some moans and cries he preferred not to think about, made it all too obvious that Richard and Charlotte had claimed the penthouse for the night.
Elizabeth’s apartment was also off limits. Jane was preparing for another stressful day in court, and Elizabeth didn’t want to impose on her privacy. So they found themselves back where they started, this time on a comfortable sofa in a shadowy corner, far from the other patrons. Although William had hoped for a different end to his evening, things could have been worse.
“Now,” he said, settling back against the cushions, a cup of decaf coffee in his hand, “tell me about your appointment today.”
“Okay. To back up a little, I’ve been trying some self-help techniques I read about on the Internet, hoping to get my flashbacks under control. I thought I was doing better, but last night it was painfully obvious that I need help. And it’s not just about me; it’s hurting you, too.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” He said the words for her sake, but they weren’t entirely true.
“You can’t tell me that my problems haven’t caused you a lot of pain and frustration. You deserve better than that. We both do.”
She paused, reaching for her coffee. William stared into his cup in silence. She was right. He did deserve better, and although he was ashamed of himself, it wasn’t the first time he’d thought about it.
Elizabeth continued. “So this morning I called a women’s crisis center to see if they had someone I could talk to, and I saw one of their counselors this evening, after my last voice lesson.”
“Is this the first time you’ve gotten counseling?”
She nodded. “Jane’s tried many times to get me to go, but I thought I could handle it on my own. I’ve always been big on self-reliance—well, I guess you know that. Besides, I wanted to put it behind me, not be forced to revisit it on a regular basis with a therapist.”
“But if you were having flashbacks and other problems—”
“Yeah, I know. I wasn’t revisiting it in therapy; instead, I was reliving it at other times, which was a hundred times worse. But I couldn’t bear to think about how he humiliated me, or how violated I felt, or how much I blamed myself for letting it happen.”
“I wish you’d stop blaming yourself. He manipulated you and lied to you. He took advantage of your innocence. And then he forced you when you said no. None of that is your fault.”
“You sound just like the counselor. And Jane.”
“I wish you’d listen to us.”
“I’m trying. It’s just really hard.”
He put down his coffee cup and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer.
She made what looked like a half-hearted attempt at a smile. “Anyway, I just kept telling myself it was in the past and I should move on. And it worked, up to a point. I mean, I haven’t been cowering in the dark for the past six years. I’ve worked hard and had fun and made lots of friends.”
He kissed her forehead. “One of the first things I noticed about you was how vibrant you were, how full of life.”
“And I haven’t been in the grip of continual flashbacks either. I mean, it was really bad at first. I had to get a single room my senior year of college because I was afraid my nightmares would wake up a roommate. But gradually things got better. It’s just been recently that I’ve taken a step backwards.”
“Because of me, and the way I remind you of him.” Her timeline confirmed William’s worst fears. “And that means every time you look at me, you’re going to be thinking of him and what he did.”
“No. A lot of that was me misjudging you.”
“But how can I touch you without worrying that I’ll frighten you? How can I ever make love to you, knowing that you might look at me and think I’m him, and panic?”
“I won’t let this come between us anymore.” She caressed his jaw. “I’m so sorry that this is hurting you.”
“It’s not your fault. I know you couldn’t help it. But I’ve been thinking about this all day, and ….” He exhaled a loud sigh and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Is this what you’ve been brooding about tonight?”
He nodded. “I see you in my mind over and over, lying there trembling. I couldn’t even touch you without making it worse.”
“I know, and that’s why I finally went to see someone today.”
“But this must not have happened with the others, and yet it’s happening with me. So it must be the resemblance to Michael.”
“What others? I don’t understand.”
“The men you’ve been with since college. I could understand you having a bad reaction your first time after Michael. But after that … well, you said things had been getting better, until now. So it must be me.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, I see. When I talked about things getting better, I meant in general. As far as other men are concerned … there haven’t been any. Until now.”
He sat up straight and stared at her. “What?”
“If we’d gone through with … things last night, it would have been my first time since Michael.”
“There hasn’t been anyone in the past six years?”
She shook her head. “You were the first man in all that time who made me want to risk my heart.”
“But ….” William shook his head slowly. “With all the men who must have noticed you and wanted to be with you, you weren’t interested in any of them?”
“It depends on what you mean by ‘interested.’ I’ve been on dates, not tons of them, but some. But I always kept them at a safe distance.”
“I had no idea it was typical for a woman to avoid sex for such a long time after a ….” He swallowed the word without saying it. He had noticed that Elizabeth seemed to avoid the word “rape,” and he didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.
She flinched but then responded to his comment. “I don’t know if it is or not. I imagine no two women respond in the same way. All I know is, if I kept men at a distance, I felt safe. And I was never interested in casual sex anyway.” She shrugged. “So I’ve had lots of men for friends—just like in high school, with all those honorary big brothers.”
She nodded. “And I found out that in at least one way, I’m typical of women who’ve gone through this; I seem to have developed some problems related to anger. And control.”
“He took what he wanted, and I had no say in the matter. I’ve never liked being ordered around, but it made me super sensitive to being told what to do or being pressured or coerced, especially about sex. Whenever that happened, it seemed threatening, sometimes even frightening. But if I rejected the guy before he could go there, I was the one in control.”
“I’ve been thinking about that since last night. I owe you an apology for the times I pushed you for things you weren’t ready to do.”
“I admit, sometimes you made me nervous, but aside from that time in New York, it was never really bad. And we already talked about that night; let’s not go back there.”
William didn’t like remembering that night either, but he felt better about it now that he understood how he had triggered her fears.
“So I built walls around my heart and strung barbed wire on top. I still believed in love, but the next time I wanted an ironclad guarantee, and of course no such thing exists. And then you came along.”
“And completely baffled you.”
For the first time in their conversation, her smile reached her eyes. “No one had ever made me feel the things that you did. One moment I’d just want to go with it, to enjoy the heat we generated together, but then the past would tap me on the shoulder and I’d freeze. That’s why I probably seemed to blow hot and cold. My body, my heart, and my mind have been at war since I met you.”
“And who’s winning?”
“That’s the best part! They’ve declared a truce. They all agree that you’re … oh, all right, I’ll say it again. You’re a wonderful guy. I’m never going to get that song out of my head.”
He chuckled and kissed her cheek. “Was this all from your talk with the counselor?”
“I think I already knew most of it, but she helped me to clarify some things. I still need to learn how to deal with the past, but she’s going to help me. She’s already made some suggestions.”
“The next time I have a flashback, she wants me to insert someone I trust into the scene, someone who could help me to stop Michael. I hope you don’t mind; I picked you for the job.”
It was absurd to be so pleased that an imaginary version of himself would be protecting her. “Of course I don’t mind. I’d give anything for it to have happened that way.”
She sighed. “Me too. But I’m almost looking forward to imagining you giving Michael a good old-fashioned butt-whoopin’, as the saying goes.”
They laughed together. “Don’t think the idea hasn’t crossed my mind,” he said.
“I’m sure Lloyd’s of London, or whoever insures your hands, would just love that,” she teased.
They fell silent after that. Elizabeth’s head drifted onto his shoulder as the band’s mellow rendition of “How Deep is the Ocean” flowed over them. He considered asking her to dance, but the comfort of their private corner combined with the fatigue beginning to seep through his body kept him seated. “Since tonight isn’t working out, will you spend tomorrow night with me? I promise to get Richard out of the way.”
“I’d love to.”
Despite the warmth of her answer, he rushed to offer assurances. “And I don’t have any expectations. You know how I feel and what I want, but until you’re ready to move forward, I’m happy to hold you while we sleep, like last night.”
“I don’t think most men would be so understanding.”
“I hope that’s not true, but I have no objection to being considered superior to other men.”
She laughed softly. “No objection? It’s your favorite pastime.” She kissed his cheek and then melted his feigned indignation with a gentle touch of her lips to his. “It’s awful the way I tease you, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is.” He returned her kiss, intending for it to be brief, but her hand exerted gentle pressure on the back of his neck, keeping his mouth on hers in a warm, lingering caress.
He lifted his head, smiling. “I guess we’d better stop this.”
“I forgot we weren’t alone. You have that effect on me.”
“Well, let’s see. Now that I’ve teased you, I think it’s time for some nagging. And I know the perfect topic. Tell me more about Friday night.”
William had maintained a steadfast—or stubborn, according to Elizabeth—silence about the details of her birthday celebration on Friday. “I already told you I’ll pick you up at seven and we’re having dinner at the penthouse.”
“Oh, come on. At least give me a hint about the menu, because I can tell you’ve got something special planned. You said Mrs. Hill wasn’t staying, so is she cooking things we can reheat later?”
“All right, a small hint. She’s fixing a few things, but the main course is being … brought in from somewhere else.”
“So you’re having it delivered. Lamb from the Big Four? Or something from Acquerello?”
“You’ll have to wait and see. But speaking of Acquerello, I need to tell you something.”
She looked up at him, sipping her coffee. “Hmm?”
“I’m taking Anne to dinner there tomorrow. I turned down two invitations from Catherine, and she was getting suspicious, so I asked the two of them to dinner. Catherine said she was busy, but at that point I couldn’t back out of taking Anne.”
“Don’t you think Catherine knows about us by now? At the very least, Anne must have heard something.”
“Probably, but she wouldn’t necessarily tell her mother. Anne’s only defense against Catherine’s micro-management is to avoid volunteering information.”
“And you’re sure Anne doesn’t want you for herself?”
William shrugged. “I’m not sure how Anne feels, except that she wishes her mother wouldn’t interfere in her life so much. But she’s never said or done anything to suggest that she thinks of me as more than a friend. Is it going to bother you if I take her to dinner?”
“No, it’s fine. You’ve done so much to earn my trust, I have no business turning into a jealous woman now.”
“And I should have mentioned before that I invited Roger to come along; I told him he could be the chaperone.”
“Speaking of Roger, here he comes.”
William looked up as Roger reached their table, shaking his head. “What are you two doing here? Can’t stand to be alone?”
An honest explanation was impossible, given that William’s cousin currently in bed with Roger’s ex-girlfriend. Fortunately, Elizabeth came to the rescue. “When the best drummer in San Francisco is here, why would we want to be anywhere else?”
Roger chuckled. “Okay, fine. It’s none of my business. But since you’re here, Will, want to join us for a quick jam session? We’re done with the gig and Bill wants to go, but the bar isn’t closing yet.”
“What a great idea!” Elizabeth’s wide-eyed enthusiasm was infectious. “You two have been talking about doing this for weeks.”
“And maybe we can twist this one’s arm into joining us for a song,” Roger said, inclining his head toward Elizabeth.
“In that case, count me in,” William said. He had often imagined accompanying her while she sang, though in his fantasies they were alone, and usually in a state of partial undress.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Elizabeth said, standing up and making a show of yanking William to his feet. “Isn’t it beneath your dignity to accompany a singer?”
William gave her a sly grin. “The way I look at it, I’m not going to be playing along with you. You’re going to be singing along with me.”
The trio approached the stage area, where Bill Collins was busy stuffing music into an old leather satchel. He bid Elizabeth a florid farewell, said a simpler goodbye to his other bandmates, and then departed with a nod at William, one that seemed to carry a peculiar mixture of disdain and obsequiousness.
William seated himself at the piano, and Elizabeth perched beside him on the bench, her face alight with anticipation. He played a few chords to get a feel for the instrument and decided that it was acceptable. He hadn’t played in a jazz group since his days with Charles at Juilliard, and as he watched Roger settling behind his drum set the enjoyment of those days flooded back. Classical music helped him to express his deepest emotions, but jazz helped him to relax.
“What shall we play?” Roger asked.
“We probably all know the standards,” William said, “so if we stick to those, maybe we can mesh something together.”
“Autumn Leaves?” Jim suggested.
William shrugged. “Fine with me. G minor?”
Elizabeth was delighted with the turn the evening had taken. Music was mostly a solitary occupation for William. He spent hours each day practicing, usually alone behind a closed door. Even when he performed with symphony orchestras in front of thousands of people, his status as the soloist set him apart. But jazz was a collaborative enterprise, and it pleased her to see him relishing the experience.
William, Roger, and Jim deftly tossed the musical spotlight back and forth as the song floated effortlessly along. With nothing to do but listen and enjoy, Elizabeth focused on William’s hands as they journeyed across the keys with ease and confidence, and on the pleasure clearly visible in his eyes.
The final notes were greeted by applause from Elizabeth and the few remaining patrons. The bartender gave them a “thumbs up” sign, calling out from across the room, “You should lose that other guy and keep this one.”
“Don’t we wish,” Roger replied, grinning at William. “Okay, what’s next? Come on, Warren, get over here. Just pick an instrument, any instrument from your massive collection.” They called Warren their ‘utility fielder’ because of the wide range of instruments he played.
Next they played an energetic rendition of “Witchcraft” during which Elizabeth found it impossible to stop tapping her toes. When they finished, Roger said, “It’s Lizzy’s turn now, isn’t it?”
William smiled at her. “Definitely.”
“Fine with me,” she said, jumping to her feet. “And I know what I want to sing. William hasn’t heard our new song yet.”
Roger snickered. “Gee, I wonder why you picked that one.”
She placed her hands on William’s shoulders. “We’ve been rehearsing it, but it isn’t quite right yet. Jim, do you have a fake book he can use?”
Jim, who had set his bass aside and was tuning his guitar, handed over a well-worn spiral book containing quick chord references for well-known songs. Elizabeth opened it to the appropriate page and set it in front of William. “I sing it in G.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her, a flirtatious light in his eyes. “Did you have anyone special in mind when you chose this song?”
“Maybe,” she purred. “But we can discuss that later.” She rested one hand on his shoulder as the group began to play the introduction to “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
Would be to capture me.
But you had such persistence, you wore down my resistance.
I fell, and it was swell.
You’re my big and brave and handsome Romeo.
How I won you I shall never, never know.
It’s not that you’re attractive, but, oh, my heart grew active
When you came into view.
I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie.
All the day and nighttime, hear me sigh.
I never had the least notion that I could fall with so much emotion.
Could you coo, could you care
For a cunning cottage we could share?
The world will pardon my mush,
‘Cause I’ve got a crush, my baby, on you.1
When the song ended, William’s seductive expression and the way his gaze dropped to her lips made it clear what would have happened had they been alone. She ran her hands over his shoulders while he leaned back against her, sharing as much intimate communion as they could manage in the midst of the band.
“Why did we think the arrangement wasn’t working?” Jim asked. “That was great.”
“Because Will was at the piano, and he’s the real deal,” Roger said. “Seriously, Will, why don’t you just move out here and join us? We could kick some major jazz butt in this town, and I bet Lizzy would be glad to have you around permanently.”
The manager of the lounge approached them. “You saved your best stuff for last,” he remarked. “I’d love to let you play all night, but it’s closing time.”
“Of course,” Jim said. “Thanks for having us. I hope you’ll call us again.”
“You’ll be hearing from us. Great job tonight.”
Twenty minutes later, the band’s equipment was loaded into Roger’s van, and William and Elizabeth exited the hotel for the second time that night. Neither said much on the way to the parking garage. The exhaustion of a long and eventful day was finally catching up with William, and he had to stifle a yawn.
When they reached her car, he stepped close to her, his hands trailing from her shoulders down her arms in a light touch. She began to shiver. “Cold?” he asked, engulfing her in a gentle embrace.
“A little, but that wasn’t what made me shiver.”
“Mmm.” His hands slid down her back, drawing her closer, and he bent his head to hers. She melted against him, and William lost all track of time as he kissed her, savoring the sweetness of her mouth and the softness of her body. When at last their lips parted, she rested her head against his shoulder with a soft sigh and they held each other, basking in the intimacy of the moment.
At last she raised her head. “I should go,” she whispered. “I don’t want to, but it’s so late.”
“Are you sure you aren’t free for lunch tomorrow?”
“I wish I were, but I’m going to have to skip lunch, and dinner too, to fit everything in.”
“But I’ll definitely see you after your night class.”
“Unless you’re out late cavorting with Anne.” She sounded serious, and he felt momentarily uneasy, but then he saw the twinkle in her eye.
“Not a chance. I’ll be home by the time your class is over.”
“Okay, then. I’ll call you as soon as I’m done.”
“I’m counting on it. But my bed is going to be a lonely place tonight.”
She sighed and caressed his cheek. “Are you going to be able to get any sleep up in the Love Shack?”
“Maybe I should find a 24-hour drugstore and buy some ear plugs. But they’re bound to run out of steam eventually; with any luck, maybe they already have.”
“I hope so for your sake, but I wouldn’t bet my next paycheck on it.”
William was tempted to ask again if he could spend the night at her apartment, noting her obvious reluctance to leave him. But that was exactly what he had promised himself he wouldn’t do. He would let her take the lead.
He kissed her again, and for a moment afterwards she looked into his eyes, wearing a thoughtful expression that filled him with hope. But instead of issuing the invitation he sought, she slid behind the wheel of her car, smiling up at him with obvious regret in her eyes.
He leaned against the open driver’s door. “Dream about me, cara.”
“I think you can count on that.”
She blew him a kiss as she drove away. He followed her car up the short ramp to the street and stood on the sidewalk, watching the taillights fade into the distance.
1 “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” by George and Ira Gershwin, © 1930, New World Music. Performed by Christiane Noll on The Ira Gershwin Album, © 2001, Fynsworth Alley. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.