“You’re probably used to king crab legs,” Elizabeth said, cracking open a crab claw. “But Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are so delicious that it’s worth the mess. At least, I think so. I get the feeling you’re not convinced.”
The mess wasn’t the only problem. William wasn’t accustomed to a meal that had to be beaten into submission—literally, as evidenced by the wooden mallet leaning against his plate in an attitude of exhaustion. His attempts to liberate the crabmeat from its unyielding prison had been unsuccessful until Elizabeth, with an air of affectionate amusement, had offered some pointers. His luck had improved after that, but the process continued to be arduous, not to mention a bit unappetizing if one focused on some of the … stuff inside the crab’s shell.
“I guess this wasn’t the best choice for an elegant, romantic dinner,” he remarked.
“Elegant, maybe not. But I can’t imagine anything more romantic than all the trouble you’ve gone to, just for me.”
“You’re worth it.” He nearly reached out to touch her, but then he remembered his Old Bay-infested hands.
“At least your suit is safe from the ravages of the meal. I know you’re relieved about that.”
He grinned at her gentle tease. They were casually attired now, William in a robe and Elizabeth in her nightshirt, lending their meal a piquant air of domesticity.
“But I’m disappointed about one thing,” she continued. “After all the time I spent shopping for the perfect dress, I had it on for, what, an hour at the most?”
“Bring it to New York when you come for Thanksgiving, and we’ll take it out to dinner some night.”
“Add dancing afterwards, and I’m sure the dress would be pleased to accept.”
“Then your dress has a date. Are you ready for dessert?” He rose to his feet.
“I’ll help you,” she said, collecting their plates. “I need to wash my hands anyway.”
Elizabeth handled rudimentary cleanup while William removed two goblets from the refrigerator, each garnished with a purple edible orchid. “Your dessert, ma’am” he announced, displaying his wares with a flourish.
“Oh, good! I was hoping for chocolate mousse. It looks delicious.”
“It is. Mrs. Hill let me try some earlier.”
“Aha. So you make a habit of hanging around the kitchen mooching, do you?”
He adopted an expression of injured dignity. “Certainly not. I had to make sure the mousse was good enough for you.”
“My brave knight. Always with the chivalry, regardless of the sacrifice involved.”
“Of course, my lady.” He retrieved two spoons from a drawer. “By the way, this is Mrs. Reynolds’s recipe, never before shared with a soul. She made Mrs. Hill promise that the secret would go with her to her grave. I believe a blood oath was involved.”
Elizabeth giggled. “I had no idea of the high-level negotiations a dinner like this demands. I sound like a broken record, but it was so sweet of you to do all of this. I can’t imagine how much work this was for you.”
“I didn’t mind,” he said softly. “I like doing things for you.”
It occurred to William that this was a perfect opportunity to tell her about the circumstances surrounding her job. He could imagine himself saying, “In fact, I like doing things for you so much that, a long time ago, I did something I probably shouldn’t have done.” They could sit in the dining room, eating their dessert, while he explained. After all, he had promised himself that he would confess once he knew that she loved him.
But she would be angry, even if she forgave him quickly, and it would ruin her birthday celebration. And he was leaving for New York in the morning. What if she hadn’t forgiven him by then? He couldn’t leave her alone and angry for a week. No. I’ll tell her when I get back, next Friday. Just a delay of a week.
They returned to the dining room. With solemn ceremony, William retrieved a tiny candle and a pack of matches from the pocket of his robe, slipped the candle into the center of Elizabeth’s mousse, and lit it.
She glanced up at him, eyebrows raised in anticipation. “Aren’t you going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Spoilsport.” She paused for a minute, fixing a watchful gaze on him.
He shook his head and folded his arms across his chest, hiding his amusement behind a smug expression. “You’re not going to guilt me into singing.”
“Oh, I think you’re wrong about that.” She stared back at him, hands on her hips, wearing a smug expression of her own.
Silence fell in the dining room as they eyed each other, until at last they both began to chuckle. “There’s nothing worse than a standoff between two pig-headed people,” Elizabeth said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, don’t even try to deny it. Or, better yet, prove you’re not stubborn by singing for me.”
“I don’t need to prove anything to anyone,” he said in as lofty a tone as he could manage. He pulled out her chair, and then seated himself.
“Okay, you win … for now.” Elizabeth blew out the tiny flame. “The candle was going to start melting all over the mousse soon anyway.”
“Besides, it’s not your birthday yet, technically speaking,” William said, waving his spoon to emphasize his point.
“So after midnight you’ll sing for me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
She shook her head, grinning, and turned her attention to her dessert. Once her goblet was empty she rose from the table and plopped onto his lap, kissing him with enthusiasm. “Thank you. Dinner was wonderful from start to finish.”
“You’re welcome.” He shifted her slightly in his arms, tightening his hold on her. “I must say, though, my favorite part was our intermission.”
“Mmm.” Her lips meandered across his neck and he closed his eyes, groaning softly as she lavished attention on a sensitive spot near his ear. Zero to aroused in two seconds; that must be some sort of record. His hands slid under the hem of her nightshirt and began to wander.
She drew back and nipped his nose, startling him. “When do I get my other birthday present? I’m dying to know what it is.”
“It’s in the bedroom. Shall we?”
“Good idea, as soon as we’ve taken care of the dishes.”
He followed her to the kitchen. It was fruitless to argue that Mrs. Hill would do it tomorrow; he had lost that battle with Elizabeth early in his tenure at the penthouse. He had become adept at wielding a dishtowel, to a degree that would have stunned Mrs. Reynolds and reduced Richard to gales of laughter.
“Would you like coffee or tea, or maybe a cognac?” he asked, when they were done.
“Did we finish the wine? It was so good, I’d love to have some more.”
He refilled their wine glasses and they took them to the bedroom. She hopped onto the bed, sipping her wine while he re-lit the candles and extinguished the bedside lamp. Then he retrieved a small jeweler’s box from his dresser and joined her on the bed.
She set her wine glass on the night table and opened the box, drawing a breath. “Oh, William, it’s beautiful!”
William exhaled loudly, unaware till that moment that he had been holding his breath in anticipation. “Then you like it?”
“I love it.” It was a pendant, a large emerald mounted with two diamonds, suspended from a platinum chain. Elizabeth lifted it from the box, cradling it in her hand.
“Your eyes have always made me think of emeralds, so I wanted to give you one, but nothing seemed right. Then Sonya suggested I look at antique jewelry, and I found this in a shop a few blocks from here.”
“It’s perfect. Sweet and a bit old-fashioned … like you.” She leaned forward and twined her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she whispered, her lips warm against his.
“Would you like to put it on now?”
She turned her back to him, holding out the ends of the chain. He fumbled with the tiny clasp while she gathered her hair out of the way. After he fastened the pendant, he pressed his lips to her neck.
She turned to face him, glancing down at the pendant. “It’s a bit dressy for my nightshirt, isn’t it?”
“It looks beautiful,” he said, admiring the brilliant emerald sparkling against her skin. “I know I’ve said it before, but you take my breath away,” he whispered.
“You make me breathless too.” She placed both hands on his chest, exerting unexpected pressure, and he found himself flat on his back with Elizabeth leaning over him, the pendant and her eyes a trio of glittering jewels. “There’s one more thing I want for my birthday.”
The hungry glint in her eyes made it easy for William to consent. “I’m entirely at your mercy.”
“I want to memorize you, all of you.”
She nodded, her fingers warm as they slid over his chest. “When you’re gone, I want to be able to conjure you up in perfect detail.”
He felt a stab of pain at the reminder of their imminent separation, but it was soon submerged beneath currents of sensual delight as her gentle exploration of his torso continued. Mesmerized by the love that shone in her eyes and poured from her fingertips, he relaxed against the pillows and allowed it to wash over him.
Elizabeth hadn’t told the truth about her motives. To a man of his experience, her attempts at pleasing him last night must have seemed hopelessly inept, compared with those of his past partners. Of course he wouldn’t admit it, but she knew it had to be true. The only solution she could think of was to enlist his cooperation to gain experience, but it would have been much too awkward to admit her true purpose. Fortunately, he seemed more than willing to be “memorized,” and in the process she would learn all she could.
He was so beautiful, lying on the bed in nothing but his boxers, the lines of stress that often creased his face smoothed away. She bent down to press a line of butterfly kisses to his neck, inhaling his scent as she trailed her fingers across his chest.
Her attention was drawn to a faint white scar at one side of his chest. “How did you get this?” she asked, brushing it with her finger. “I noticed it last night, but when you’re shirtless, I’m easily distracted.”
His characteristic vertical frown line appeared. “It’s from a while ago.”
“It looks like it. What caused it?”
When he finally responded, his reluctance was palpable. “It’s from surgery.”
“Surgery?” Her eyes widened.
“My heart. Or more accurately, my aorta.”
“But I thought they fixed it without surgery.”
“I had surgery years ago, when I first had the problem.”
“When you first ….” She stared at him. “This summer wasn’t the first time you had heart problems?”
He sat up halfway, leaning on his elbows, and again he hesitated before he spoke. “No.”
Her first impulse was to pepper him with questions, but she forced herself to wait while he assembled his thoughts.
At last his eyes met hers and he spoke in a diffident tone. “I was born with a congenital defect, where the aorta is constricted.”
“The same problem you had over the summer?”
“Yes. Sometimes it recurs in adulthood.”
“A congenital defect. So you had surgery as a newborn?”
“No. I didn’t start having obvious problems until around the time we moved to New York.”
“How old were you?”
“Almost two. It took about a year for the doctors to figure out what was wrong.”
She kissed his shoulder, touched by this poignant image. “Oh, you poor thing. And your poor parents, worrying about you for all that time.”
A shadow flitted across his face. “It was difficult for Mamma. She’d left her family and friends behind in Italy, and she’d given up her career. And she and Gran got off to a rocky start.”
Elizabeth wasn’t surprised to hear that Rose hadn’t liked Anna; she had been an outsider. Like me. “What about your father?”
“He thought Mamma was coddling me, that the reason the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong was because there was nothing to find.”
“Once they said you needed surgery, he must have felt terrible.”
William didn’t respond. He rarely mentioned his father, and Elizabeth sensed that she was treading in a vulnerable area. She wanted to know more, but it seemed more important to pursue the question of his health. “So you were three when you had the operation?”
“It was just before my third birthday. It was a risky procedure in those days, and the prospect terrified my mother.”
“Of course it did. That poor woman; her little boy was sick and she had nobody to lean on.”
He nodded. “Although she and Gran did finally bond over the experience.”
“And poor you. You must have been so scared and confused.” Elizabeth took his hand and raised it to her lips.
“I don’t remember much, which I suppose is for the best.”
“Did the surgery go well?”
“There were complications. I don’t know all the details, but apparently I almost died. I was in the hospital for about three weeks, and I had a slow convalescence at home afterwards.”
“So that’s why she was so protective of you! I wondered.”
“She never stopped worrying. In those days, heart patients weren’t encouraged to exercise the way they are today, but she carried things even further. She preferred that I stay indoors, either with her or with someone else from the household.”
“That must have been lonely.” She touched the scar gently.
He wrapped her in his arms, drawing her against his body. “I don’t mean to make it sound like something out of Dickens. Most women in our circle handed their children over to nannies, but Mamma devoted herself to me. She read me stories and sang to me, and we played games together. She started teaching me to read during my convalescence, and books opened new worlds for me.”
“But you were only three.”
He shrugged. “I’ve always loved books; I guess I was motivated to learn.”
A ghost of a smile flashed across Elizabeth’s face at this offhand dismissal of his formidable intellect. “You told me once that you started on the piano around that time, too.”
“Yes, and soon it was my favorite pastime. Music let me take all sorts of journeys in my mind.”
“Things must have changed when you started school.”
“Not that much, except that I was out of the house for part of each day.”
“But you had a chance to make friends with the boys in your class.”
“They didn’t have much use for a scrawny, shy kid who wasn’t allowed to play sports.” She heard a hint of bitterness in his tone. “And later when I started missing school for performances and competitions ….” He shrugged. “I didn’t have much in common with them.”
She nestled closer to him, stroking his hair. “You’ve felt completely alone for most of your life, haven’t you?”
“Not anymore.” His eyes embraced her.
“What I don’t understand is, why didn’t you tell me the full story about your heart problem before?”
He sighed. “I didn’t want you to see me as weak and damaged.”
“You can’t possibly believe that I’d think less of you because of this.” She took his hand. “I hope you have more faith in me than that.”
His gaze rested on their entwined fingers. “Darcy men are supposed to be strong. Weakness of any sort is unacceptable.”
“Says who? Your grandmother? What were you supposed to do, refuse to be born, since you weren’t flawless in every detail? Fling yourself out of your bassinet at the hospital? Besides, you’re not weak, and anybody who thinks you are doesn’t know the first thing about you.” She pressed her lips together in an angry line.
He smiled and squeezed her hand. “And you think my mother was protective?”
“I can’t help it. You’re my wonderful guy, and I won’t have anybody saying otherwise.”
“I should hire you as my press agent,” he teased.
“Ah, but are you prepared for me to tell the shocking tale of the day you refused to sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”
Chuckling, William kissed the tip of her nose and then covered her mouth with his. He rolled onto his back, taking her with him so that she lay on top of him. Elizabeth closed her eyes, absorbing the delicious sensation.
“Didn’t you say something about memorizing me?” he murmured, spreading kisses across her jaw.
“Mmm, yes, I did.”
“I hope that’s going to involve more than just looking.”
“Of course. The more actively a student is engaged in the learning process, the more the student will remember later.”
“Then we’re talking about hands-on learning, I hope?” His rakish grin made her laugh.
She extracted herself from his embrace, sitting beside him. “Precisely,” she murmured, stroking his chest in a slow circular massage.
“Consider me your personal learning laboratory.” He lay back, arms folded behind his head.
“And I can’t see any reason to restrict the experience to just touch and sight. Might as well use all five senses.” She leaned forward, burying her nose against his chest. “You smell wonderful, so warm and sexy.”
“So do you,” he mumbled. “But you’re not wearing your usual perfume tonight.”
“I had a lavender sugar body scrub at the spa.”
He arched an eyebrow. “They scrub your body with sugar? And this is a good thing?”
“It’s supposed to leave your skin soft and smooth.”
His hand skimmed her body, coming to rest on her hip. “I can vouch for that. You’re softer than the silk sheets.”
“I’m glad you approve, since I did it for you. Now, let’s see. We’ve covered sight, touch and smell. Next comes taste.” She kissed her way down his chest and flicked her tongue over his taut brown nipple.
He closed his eyes, a soft groan escaping his throat. “You’re welcome to taste anything you like, cara.”
“That covers all the senses except for sound.”
He opened his eyes, giving her an exaggerated long-suffering look. “I hope that wasn’t another hint for me to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
She laughed softly. “No, I’ve given up on that for the moment. But maybe some of the touching and tasting will inspire you to make a noise or two.”
He reached up, drawing her down on top of him. “I think you can depend on that.”
Elizabeth wasn’t sure how long she had been floating with William in a state of languorous contentment. She only knew that she had no desire to move, which was fortunate since she doubted she possessed the strength. The electricity of their lovemaking had drained her of energy, and she lay enveloped in the warm haven of his arms.
They had not spoken since collapsing together into a sated heap of intertwined limbs. After a time, she had roused herself sufficiently to draw lazy designs on his chest, pressing occasional kisses to the hollow at the base of his throat. His hands alternated between caressing her back and smoothing her tangled hair.
The night air felt cool against her damp skin, and she shivered. He drew the sheet up, tucking it carefully around her shoulders. “Are you okay?” he murmured.
“Mmmm.” She nestled even closer, luxuriating in the strength of his body. “You feel so good,” she said, her voice barely louder than a sigh.
“So do you.” His fingers traced a path down her side, resting on her hip.
They fell silent again, engrossed in their private thoughts. Elizabeth replayed their passionate encounter, her body tingling from the memory. She had been unprepared for such a powerful rush of sensation, so fierce it was almost painful. But more than that, the intimacy wrought by their shared ecstasy had left an indelible imprint on her heart.
Introspection wasn’t Elizabeth’s strong suit, nor was the eve of William’s departure the best time to reflect on the depth of her feelings for him. She cast about for a way to lighten her mood, finding it when the distant chime of the grandfather clock in the den announced the hour: twelve o’clock precisely.
“It’s after midnight now,” she said, fixing an expectant stare on William. “And that means it’s officially my birthday. So feel free to begin the serenade whenever you’re ready.”
His chuckle rumbled in his chest. “Why are you so determined to get me to sing?”
“Because I bet you’re good at it, and you’re just holding out on me.”
They lapsed into silence again. Even the city below seemed to have been lulled into a state of peace, with only faint sounds of distant traffic filtering into the bedroom. She heard the clock chime the quarter hour. Their time together was passing much too quickly.
“What did we say was next on our agenda?” she asked, propping her head up on one arm. “A movie, wasn’t it?” Her new DVD player still sat on top of the television across the room.
He stroked her hair, a sleepy grin warming his face. “You can watch one if you want, but I’ve already nodded off three or four times. I’m afraid there’s only one thing in my immediate future, and that’s sleep.”
His exhaustion was evident, so she decided not to press the issue. She leaned over to blow out the candles on the nightstand nearest her, and then, noting that his eyes had already drifted shut, she clambered over him to do the same on the other side.
When she returned to the center of the bed, William wrapped her in his arms, kissing her forehead and then her lips. “Good night, cara,” he mumbled. Almost instantly, his deep, regular breathing announced that he was asleep.
Elizabeth’s fingers sifted through his thick hair, memorizing its texture. He stirred in his sleep, mumbling something unintelligible and drawing her closer. She kissed his forehead and stared into the darkness, listening to the clock chime at regular intervals, the time of his departure growing ever nearer. At last, deep into the night, she slept.