As was always the case when Elizabeth came over after dark, William had insisted on meeting her in the parking garage and walking her back to the penthouse. Since the garage was next door to his building, she considered this an excess of chivalry. Earlier in their relationship she had sometimes “forgotten” to call and notify him of her impending arrival, but she had finally decided that it was a small price to pay for his peace of mind. Plus, as she reminded herself, it simplified getting admitted to his building.
Upstairs, he helped her off with her coat and hung it in the closet. Then he picked up her overnight bag. “I’ll take this to the bedroom.” But before he could go, their eyes met in an intimate look that sent a shiver through Elizabeth. William dropped the bag and captured her head in his hands. “I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered, bending his head to hers.
Their kiss ignited a shower of sparks inside her, and with a low moan she wrapped her arms around him. Her few remaining doubts about her intentions for the night were vaporized by the heat of their embrace. Nothing had ever felt so right.
Desire radiated from his eyes. “I missed you last night,” he murmured, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “I could hardly stand it, lying alone in my bed, aching for you.”
“I missed you, too. I couldn’t stop thinking about how warm and safe I felt in your arms.”
William’s frown line creased his forehead. He released her and retrieved her bag from the floor. “Yes, well, I’ll take this down the hall.”
Elizabeth stood staring at an orchid on the hall table, puzzling over what had just happened. He had seemed on the verge of taking her to his bedroom, not her overnight bag, when his mood had suddenly changed. It reminded her of last night when they were saying their goodbyes. She had expected him to ask once more to come home with her, and she doubted she could have refused. She had even subtly encouraged another entreaty by asking if he would be able to get any sleep upstairs. But instead of making the request she expected, he had helped her into her car, hurrying her on her way.
Still pondering the mystery that was William Darcy, she wandered into the den. Almost immediately, he reappeared and joined her on the sofa. “Are you tired?” he asked.
“Yes and no. It’s been a long day, but I’m usually pretty wired after my night class. How about you?”
“I was tired earlier, but I took a nap late this afternoon instead of practicing.”
“So I assume Richard and Char kept you awake last night?”
“It wasn’t as bad as it might have been, but I definitely heard them. Have you talked to Charlotte today?”
“She called to set a time to meet at the spa tomorrow. Apparently they had just as good a time as the noise suggested.” Charlotte had been at an uncharacteristic loss for words, but clearly the night had far exceeded her expectations.
William snorted. “Richard exhausted his supply of baseball metaphors trying to describe it. Did you tell her that we heard them?”
“I didn’t see the point.”
“I told Richard, and he had a good laugh at the two of us tiptoeing around their trail of clothing. I suppose you know they’re at the Four Seasons tonight.”
“Uh huh. With 24-hour room service and everything.”
“Speaking of which, are you hungry?”
“Yes, I am. I had half a sandwich before class, but that’s all I’ve eaten since … let’s see, since lunch yesterday. I had to skip dinner last night too, because of seeing the counselor.”
He stretched his arm around her shoulders. “You need to take better care of yourself, cara.”
“You sound like me, a couple of months ago.”
He grinned. “I suppose it’s my turn to nag now. If you’d like something to eat, there’s a pot of vegetable soup in the kitchen. Mrs. Hill made it in case you were hungry.”
“Oh, that sounds good.”
“Then let’s get you some dinner.”
A few minutes later they were seated at the kitchen table sharing a bottle of wine while Elizabeth enjoyed her soup. “This hits the spot,” she sighed. “Thank you so much.”
“No need to thank me. Mrs. Hill did the work.”
“But it was your idea, wasn’t it? You knew I might be hungry, and you also know how much I love her vegetable soup.”
He shrugged diffidently and turned his gaze out the window. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Would you like some more wine?”
“Maybe in a few minutes.” Elizabeth’s eyes warmed in tender amusement. He was sometimes embarrassed to be caught making small, thoughtful gestures. “How was your dinner tonight?”
“Pleasant enough. It was good to have Roger there. Anne and I both tend to be quiet in situations like that.”
“An understatement for the ages. What did he think of Anne?”
“I didn’t have a chance to ask. It was getting late, and he volunteered to walk her to her car so I could get back here to meet you.”
“Roger’s such a sweetheart.” She set down her spoon, an impish gleam in her eyes. “So, was vegetable soup supposed to be the first course of our dinner tomorrow? And has this late-night snack disrupted your plans?”
William shook his head with a long-suffering air, but the smile in his eyes told a different story. “I see that Ms. Inquisitive is on the job again. Very well, ma’am, I’ll answer that question. Vegetable soup is not now, nor has it never been, on the menu for tomorrow.”
“You realize it’s dangerous to have me here tonight, don’t you? It’s a perfect opportunity to snoop for clues. I can check out the groceries in the fridge, for example.”
He shrugged with a superior air. “Go ahead. There’s nothing incriminating in there.”
“Or maybe I’ll check the closets for my birthday present.”
“That would be ‘presents,’ plural. In fact, I thought I might give you one tonight. Would you like that?”
“If you’re expecting me to say, ‘No, thanks, I’d rather wait till tomorrow,’ you’re crazy.”
He drained his wine glass and stood up. “All right, then. I’ll be right back.”
Elizabeth was just finishing her soup when William returned to the kitchen carrying a large box wrapped in silver foil paper. Three smaller packages were piled on top of the box.
“I thought you said one present tonight,” she remarked, “not that I’m complaining.”
“They go together.” He cleared a space on the table and set the packages there. “Open the big one first.”
Elizabeth ripped off the paper, revealing a cardboard box whose markings identified the contents as a DVD player. “This is fantastic! Jane and I have been talking about buying one, but we hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet.”
“The salesperson said it was the best one on the market,” he said.
Elizabeth grinned at the thought of this bonanza coming the salesperson’s way. William was an audiophile, knowledgeable about stereo components and speakers, but his expertise did not extend to video equipment. “Thank you,” she said, jumping from her chair to give him a kiss.
“Open the others.” He sat back in his chair regarding her fondly, obviously pleased with the success of his gift.
She returned to her seat and chose another package, bursting into laughter when she tore it open. “South Pacific on DVD! As if I haven’t been getting enough of it at rehearsals.”
“That’s from Sonya. She said it could serve as a memento of all the time you spent coaching.”
“Have you ever seen it?”
William shook his head.
“How anyone could grow up in New York and be so ignorant about Broadway musicals is beyond me. Why don’t you borrow it? Maybe sometime you’ll feel like watching it. You can see Mitzi Gaynor singing, ‘I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.’”
“I’d rather have you sing it for me.”
“Don’t hold your breath. It’s going to be a long time before I recover from rehearsal burnout on those songs. Okay, let’s see what else I have here.” She opened the third package and found another DVD: The Philadelphia Story.
“Remember our conversation about this movie?” he asked, an eager light in his eyes. “It was the first time we drove up to Stinson Beach. We said we wanted to watch it together.”
“Of course I remember.”
“That’s why I wanted to give you these presents now. Since we’re not tired, I thought maybe we could watch the movie tonight.”
She was surprised by the suggestion but not opposed to it. “Sure, we could do that.”
“Good. Now open the last present.”
This one had been bundled into a small paper bag. She laughed when she unveiled a package of microwave popcorn. “Perfect.” She stood up, holding out her hand to him. He rose, and she wound her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Thank you so much. I love my presents.”
“You’re welcome. And you’ll get your main gift tomorrow. Shall we fix the popcorn and go into the den?” The Fitzwilliams’ DVD player was installed there.
“I have a better idea. There’s a TV in your bedroom, right?”
“Yes, but I’ve never used it.”
“Well, let’s see if it works, and we can try out my new DVD player in there.”
“You mean watch the movie in bed?” He gave her a wary glance.
“Why not? We can change into our PJs, get comfortable. And we could take the popcorn and the rest of the wine in there, unless you object to eating in bed.”
“As long as we don’t end up lying on popcorn hulls all night.” He shrugged. “All right. If that’s what you want, I’ll work on hooking up the DVD player.”
“And I’ll make the popcorn and grab the wine.”
With a distracted nod, he took the DVD player and the DVDs and departed, leaving her more mystified than ever. She had expected him to enthusiastically endorse the idea of snuggling in bed while watching the movie, yet his reaction had been lukewarm at best. She started the popcorn and leaned on the counter, her chin supported by one fist as she stared absently at the microwave.
Her ardent suitor seemed to have cooled just when she was ready to move forward. She remembered Jane’s opinion that he would need for her to take the initiative, but she had done that earlier during their passionate kiss, and again with her suggestion that they move into his bedroom. In both cases, he had retreated in response to her advances.
The popping sounds slowed to a trickle, and she poured the popcorn into a bowl. She juggled the bowl, the wine bottle, and their glasses, managing to make it to the bedroom without dropping anything. “I don’t think I’ve ever had wine and popcorn together before,” she said as she deposited her cargo on the night table.
William had set the DVD player on top of the television and was hunkered down alongside the TV, connecting the cables. “I think I’ve got it,” he said. He rose to his feet and fumbled with the remote control, succeeding only in obtaining static. He swore under his breath, pointed the remote at the TV, and tried again in vain. “It must be broken.”
“Try putting the TV on Channel 3.”
He did as she suggested, and the DVD player’s setup screen appeared. “I see that superior gleam in your eye,” he grumbled.
“My poor technologically challenged guy,” she said sweetly, stroking his shoulders. To her dismay, he stiffened at her touch. Unsure how to deal with his peculiar mood, she released him. “I’m going to go into the bathroom and change.”
A few minutes later she stood inspecting herself in the bathroom mirror. One of her recent errands had been a shopping trip to find something appropriate to wear to bed. She had bypassed the filmy baby-doll nightgowns and other provocative garments and settled on a satin button-front nightshirt in a deep shade of amethyst. It wasn’t sexy—she couldn’t see herself wearing something like that—but it was infinitely more attractive than the various oversized, ink-stained tee shirts in her drawer at home.
She fluffed her hair around her shoulders, the way she knew he liked it. Then, taking a deep breath, she opened the bathroom door and stepped through.
William stood staring blindly out the window, trying to calm the attack of nerves that had seized him while changing into his nightclothes. He had begun to regret inviting Elizabeth to spend the night. His troubles had begun immediately on their arrival at the penthouse, when the mere thought of her overnight bag residing in his bedroom had spiked his desire nearly to the boiling point. Her passionate response to his kiss had only made matters worse; he had been within seconds of lifting her into his arms and carrying her off to bed.
Since then he had devised a series of distractions, hoping to delay bedtime until he was too exhausted for anything but sleep, but she had short-circuited his plan by proposing that they watch the movie in his bedroom. Even her light touch on his shoulders had been unbearably arousing. Didn’t she have the slightest idea what she was doing to him?
No, of course she didn’t. She trusted him. He would have to remember what she had said earlier: that she felt safe in his arms. That was what she needed, to feel safe. Not to have me panting and drooling after her.
Then she came out of the bathroom, looking like a dream in her satiny shirt, her hair loose and slightly disheveled, her delectable legs bared from mid-thigh to toe. In his mind he had already unbuttoned the shirt and was feasting his eyes on her beautiful form.
“William, what’s wrong?” Her sweet, musical voice only compounded his distress.
“I can’t do this,” he muttered.
“You can’t do what?”
He hadn’t intended to say the words aloud. Perhaps it was just as well. “I’m sorry, Lizzy. I know you’re counting on me, but I don’t think I can share a bed with you tonight.”
She stepped closer to him, and he nearly groaned as the intoxicating scent of jasmine filled his nostrils. He fought warring urges: to open a safe distance between them, or to yank her into his arms and devour her. A safe distance. And that would be … Cleveland?
“Tell me what’s bothering you,” she said softly, her eyes full of tender concern.
Something inside him gave way and the words poured out, eluding his efforts to halt them. “This is torture, Lizzy. I’ve spent the past 24 hours thinking of nothing but having you in my bed, and I’m not talking about sleeping. Maybe it was overhearing Richard and Charlotte, and then hearing him talk about how incredible it was … or maybe it’s just that your slightest touch sets me on fire. I know you need me to be patient and gentle, and I’d rather cut off my arm than do anything to hurt or frighten you. But you’re in my blood, and I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.”
“I’m a man, not a superhero. I was already in a bad way before you came out of the bathroom, but seeing you now, so beautiful, so sexy ….” He sighed, shaking his head. “If we get into that bed, I’m going to be dying to touch you and kiss you, and make love to you. I don’t mean that I’d try to push you into doing anything; I promised you'd be safe with me, and that's a promise I will always keep. But I’m not going to be able to sleep, or even lie there quietly, with you so close to me. I’d be tossing and turning all night and we’d both be miserable.”
He stopped to grab a breath. Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, but he wasn’t finished yet.
“I can think of two solutions. We can go to the den and watch the movie, and maybe by the time we’re ready for bed I’ll be so tired that I’ll just fall asleep no matter what. Or I can kiss you good night and sleep in another bedroom, and I’ll see you for breakfast.”
The seductive expression in her eyes set his heart hammering wildly. She moved closer, until their bodies were almost touching. “Or,” she murmured, “we could go to bed right now. Together.”
“Shhh.” She raised up on tiptoe, locking her arms around his neck. “You can stop protecting me from yourself.”
The heat of her kiss took him by surprise, but he couldn’t have resisted at any price. They stood locked together in mindless rapture as the minutes passed, giving and taking, tasting and exploring. His hands roved down her back, the satin of her nightshirt sliding smoothly beneath his fingers. She moaned against his mouth, her hands tangling in his hair, and pressed herself closer.
Then she released him and stepped out of his arms. Befuddled by desire, he simply stared as she captured his hand, leading him the few steps to the bed. She perched on the edge of the mattress, her smile brimming with tantalizing promise, and drew him down to sit beside her.
“I hope I’m not dreaming,” he whispered, reaching out to touch her cheek.
As their lips met, a lone coherent thought flitted through his mind: At least this time I had a chance to turn down the bed first.
He wasn’t dreaming, nor was she, but Elizabeth had to admit that the night had taken on a dreamlike quality. They sat together on the bed, sharing a spine-tingling kiss that she wished would never end. But it did end eventually, he caressed her cheek. “Are you sure about this?” he asked.
She nodded and reached out to smooth his hair.
“What about … what if you have a flashback?”
“I don’t think I will, not tonight. I asked the counselor to help me. I told her that the man I loved was leaving town very soon, and I didn’t want to wait to make love to him anymore. So she made some suggestions.”
He kissed her softly. “Is there anything I need to know? Besides that I should keep my weight off you, obviously.”
“Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not at all. Anything else?”
“Well, in a way it’s my first time.”
“I understand. We’ll take this slowly.”
“Good, because I’m a little nervous. Or, on second thought, make that ‘a lot nervous.’”
“You’re not the only one.” He combed his fingers through her hair. “It’s a big responsibility, being a woman’s first lover.”
My first lover. Her heart swelled at the words. She touched his chest, feeling his warmth through the tee shirt he wore. “Is there anything I need to know?”
“Like what?” He seemed surprised by the question.
“Your heart. For a while you weren’t allowed to do this, and I’ve heard stories of men having heart attacks in bed with women.”
He grinned. “I’m fine. And my blood pressure will probably plummet once I’m not in a constant state of frustration. Speaking of which ….”
She watched his hand as he slowly unbuttoned her shirt, spreading it open. She wound her arms around his neck, pulling his head down, and eagerly claimed his mouth as it came down on hers.
Much later, Elizabeth cradled William in her arms, massaging his sweat-dampened back with one hand while the other tenderly stroked his hair. My first lover. She tightened her arms around him, relishing the warmth and strength of his body covering hers.
Wait a minute. He’s on top of me, and … I’m okay.
He apparently recognized his position at almost the same moment and rolled to one side. “Lizzy, I’m sorry. I was so … I couldn’t think, and I just … are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” She reached for him. “In fact, why don’t you come back here and let me hold you?”
He turned his back for a moment, fumbling briefly with a tissue, and then drew her into his arms. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine.” She nestled against him. “Scratch that. I’m wonderful.”
“Good. Because … cara, I ….” He shook his head with a rueful smile. “I don’t have the words to tell you how I feel, or how much I love you. I’d need to get up and play something for you, but I don’t have enough energy right now.”
She reached for the lamp on the night table and switched it off. In the darkness, she slid back into his arms. “You can play for me later. Right now, just hold me.”
They floated together in a sea of contentment, exchanging soft kisses, tender caresses, and whispered words of love.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“I told you, I’m fine. For some reason your weight on me didn’t scare me this time.”
“I meant, I’m sorry you didn’t ….”
She kissed him. “No reason to apologize. I enjoyed it.” The sweet pleasure she had experienced had left her eager to try again, and soon.
His tone was still repentant. “I’ve wanted to make love to you for so long, and when you said you loved me ….” He sighed. “It overwhelmed me.”
“I’ve been very well taken care of tonight by my wonderful guy.”
His lips slid along her throat. “Someday you’re going to sing that for me.”
“I could pop in the DVD right now if you want to hear the song.”
His sleepy chuckle rumbled in her ear. “I’ll pass.”
They lapsed into silence, and Elizabeth’s eyes drifted shut.
His husky voice pulled her back from the edge of sleep. “Since you didn’t get scared when I was lying on top of you, does this mean you’re done with the flashbacks for good?”
“I doubt it. But maybe they’ll be less frequent, and maybe someday they’ll go away. And, you know, tonight there’s something special in my favor.”
She pressed a warm kiss to his lips. “I have everything I need right here, because you’re with me. If a certain creep from my college days had tried to crash the party, we’d have kicked him to the curb together.”
“I love you, Lizzy,” he mumbled thickly. No more than a minute later he was breathing in the gentle rhythm of sleep.
“I love you, too,” she whispered, closing her eyes.