He gave the driver directions to the conservatory. He had hoped that Elizabeth would appear at Symphony Hall during rehearsals; he had gone so far as to hint for such a visit. But perhaps it was just as well. His studio, or her office, at the conservatory would offer the privacy he needed to carry out his plan. He was in the grip of a rare impulsive urge, unable to wait till tonight to follow through.
It was odd that she had neither answered her cell phone nor responded to his messages. She had warned him that her day would be hectic because of the impending opening night of South Pacific, but he had hoped that she would at least find time for a quick phone call.
But regardless of her commitments today, tomorrow night she would be at Symphony Hall. He closed his eyes and imagined her in the audience, her eyes brimming with love and pride. He would play for her, opening his heart to her in a language they both understood. And then, when he was done, he would surprise her with the encore that he and the orchestra had prepared as a gift for her. He sat forward, grinning as he imagined her reaction to his tribute.
The limo pulled in front of the main doors to the conservatory, and William jumped out before the driver could exit the car to open the door. “I expect to be a while,” he said.
Her office was locked. This seemed to contradict her plans as she had explained them yesterday, but then he realized that she was probably in the theater. He moved quickly through the halls, mostly deserted as usual on Friday afternoons. As he approached the theater he heard muffled voices along with the sound of large objects being dragged across the floor. He entered through the backstage doors and addressed a stagehand testing the controls for the curtains.
“I’m looking for Eliz—Ms. Bennet,” he said.
“Haven’t seen her,” the stagehand answered without looking up from her task. “She might be out front with Denny.”
He found his way through the curtain. Elizabeth had mentioned Denny several times; he was the graduate student directing the play. William located a young man with a clipboard and a harried manner and approached him. “Are you Denny?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” Denny glanced up from his clipboard for only a split second, but then executed the sort of double-take William received on a regular basis. “You’re William Darcy.”
He nodded. “I’m looking for Ms. Bennet.”
“She went home sick around lunchtime. Said she’d try to come back later, and I hope so, because heaven knows I need the help. Why does everything wait till the last minute to go wrong?”
William muttered his thanks and left the theater.
Fifteen minutes later he stood in front of her apartment door, holding the red rose he had forgotten to bring into the conservatory. It occurred to him that she might be sleeping; he hated to disturb her, but he couldn’t wait to see her. At first there was no response to his knock, but then he heard soft footsteps followed by Elizabeth’s voice, lacking its usual musical clarity. “Who is it?”
“Lizzy, it’s William.”
His announcement was greeted by lengthy silence, but finally the door opened. Elizabeth, looking pale and somber, her hair disheveled, stood in the doorway wearing a faded knee-length tee shirt. She held onto the doorknob and stared at him in silence, biting her lip.
William, who had imagined her flinging herself into his open arms, wasn’t sure how to respond to this chilly reception. But he reminded himself that she was not feeling well. He stepped forward and enfolded her in a comforting embrace. “I missed you so much,” he whispered.
She stood stiffly in his arms, not melting against him as she usually did. When he captured her face in his hands and lowered his head, he was surprised that she evaded his kiss. Was she worried about being contagious with a virus, and wanted to spare him?
He offered her the rose, but she only stared at it, so he set it on the dining table. He led her to the sofa, noting the pillows arranged against the sofa arm and the afghan lying on the floor. “How are you, cara? I heard at school that you were sick.”
“I’m starting to feel better,” she said quietly. Her continued remoteness puzzled him, but he had never seen Elizabeth when she was ill. Perhaps she closed in on herself at such times. It was a response he understood.
“Why don’t you lie down, and you can rest your head on my lap,” he suggested, his eyes caressing her. “You’ve been a wonderful pillow for me sometimes. Now I can return the favor.”
She remained standing next to the sofa, arms crossed over her chest. “No, thank you. I have to get back to the conservatory soon.”
“You must have a few minutes, at least. I have something important to discuss with you.”
“It would be better to wait till tonight.”
“No, this can’t wait.”
She sighed. “This isn’t a good idea.”
“Just hear me out, Lizzy.” William took her hands in his and led her over to sit beside him. “If this past week has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t do without you. I have to have you with me, and not just once in a while. You said the same thing last week, that you wanted more than a long-distance relationship.”
“William, this really isn’t a good time—”
“Let me say this. I want you to move back to New York as soon as possible so we can be together. And I want you to travel with me. You said you wanted to see the world; we’ll see it together.” He shook his head. “But I’m going about this all wrong.” He reached into his coat pocket, drew out a small black velvet box, and opened it, revealing the diamond ring he had carefully selected for her. “Marry me, Lizzy. You’re everything I’ve ever wanted, and I love you with all my heart. Please, say you’ll be my wife.”
She stared at the ring in silence, wearing a bewildered expression.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, reaching out to brush her hair from her face. “You’ll have to leave Jane. But you can come back here to visit as often as you want. Or you can fly her to New York to visit you. Your father’s welcome, too. Even Kitty, if you want. I’m sure she’d love to see New York.” And as long as she wasn’t with Lydia, the city might survive the visit.
Elizabeth opened her mouth as if to speak, but then closed it again.
“You’ll need a place to live until the wedding, of course. I’m going to have Sonya look for someplace on Fifth Avenue, near the townhouse.”
“You’re getting me an apartment?”
He heard the edge in her voice and wasn’t surprised; he had expected her pride to rebel at this. “Don’t worry. You can pay some rent if it’ll make you feel better. But I want you to have a nice place where we can be together, and I want it to be close to the townhouse so I can go back and forth easily.”
Elizabeth pursed her lips. “What else?”
It seemed like a peculiar question, but William forged ahead. “You’ll have to leave the conservatory, of course. I know you can’t leave before the semester ends, but if you give notice now, Catherine still has two months to find someone for next semester.”
“And will my replacement be your property too?” she asked, staring at the ring.
“My property? What do you mean?”
She looked up, and the expression in her eyes hit him like an Arctic blast. “I mean, will you buy the new person a job, like you did me? If you do that, you’ll own them, right? Like you think you own me?”
William was about to protest that he didn’t think he owned her when the meaning of her words came clear. His stomach clenched. “Lizzy, wait. Let me explain.”
She jumped to her feet, her eyes blazing. “Oh, yes, please do. I’d love to hear you explain how you bought me a job and never got around to mentioning it. While you were busy making all those plans for our future, did you buy me a job in New York to replace the one I’m leaving behind? Who knew, when I was working day and night to get through grad school, that all I needed was a rich boyfriend!”
He set the ring on the coffee table and stood up. “That’s not what happened.”
“Are you saying that there isn’t a copy of your personal check in my employment file, along with a note documenting your conversation with Catherine, right down to the exorbitant salary you insisted on?”
He hesitated, his mind whirling, desperately seeking the clearest explanation. “Yes, it’s my check, and it sounds like the memo I wrote. But—”
Her voice trembled as she spoke. “What a great joke on me. When I think how I argued that I had to pay for my own cell phone, and how I wanted to buy dinner every now and then. I was so proud of myself for asserting my independence despite the fact that those things were just pocket change for you. But here’s the punch line: it was your money, no matter who paid. You must have had a good laugh at my expense more than once.”
“I never laughed at you, and I don’t consider it my money. You earned every penny. You’re a wonderful teacher, someone any arts foundation would be proud to sponsor.”
“This wasn’t a grant from your foundation. It was your personal check.”
William didn’t like the disdain in her eyes. She wasn’t even giving him a chance. “I had good reasons for what I did, if you’ll let me explain.”
“Oh, of course. You always think you have good reasons for everything you do. You wanted to get me out of New York, because you didn’t like being attracted to someone from such a distasteful background. You figured if you sent me away you’d be safe, so you bought me a job three thousand miles away. You had no idea you’d end up here two months later. So I guess in the end, the joke was on you.”
“You’re wrong.” William felt a stab of annoyance at her unjust accusation. “I did it because I loved you.”
“And if you love something, you have to own it, so of course you pulled out your checkbook.”
William’s hands plowed through his hair. “How did I benefit from sending the woman I loved thousands of miles away? Letting you leave New York was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I did it for you, because I loved you and I knew how much you wanted the job.”
She sighed, her lips compressed in a thin line, but her eyes didn’t look quite as cold as before. Relieved that he seemed to be making headway, he continued.
“The day after the Juilliard reception I called Catherine to vouch for you again, as I’d already done once, but she said she wasn’t planning to hire you. So I offered her a donation to cover your salary if she’d change her mind.”
“You coerced her into hiring me when she didn’t even want me?” She sighed loudly, her eyes narrowed. “And to think how proud I was that a prestigious conservatory wanted me on its faculty.”
“Catherine said you were qualified for the job; she simply preferred another candidate. My donation made it possible for Catherine to hire both of you. It was good for you because you wanted the job, and it was good for Catherine because she got to expand her faculty.”
“Yeah, I can tell how thrilled she is. At least I finally know why she hates me so much.”
“I’m sorry for that. I didn’t anticipate that she’d treat you badly. I simply saw an opportunity to make you happy and I acted on it. Don’t you remember telling me how much you wanted to be with Jane?”
“Jane! Of course. Now I understand. This was your way of adjusting your blinders and absolving yourself for ruining her life, wasn’t it? You took Charles away from her, so you thought you’d send me along as a consolation prize.”
William grimaced. Just when he seemed to be clambering out of a deep hole, danger threatened again. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, don’t even try to play innocent. You decided Jane wasn’t good enough for your friend. So the morning after the rehearsal dinner, when he wanted to go to her and reconcile, you stopped him.”
“Who told you this?” His heart raced. No good could come from having this conversation now, when she was already upset.
“Is it true?”
William paused, considering how best to word his response. “I gave him my opinion on the best course of action, and he agreed.”
“You did lots more than that. You told him Jane was a fortune hunter, just trying to get her hands on his money. After an acquaintance of less than 24 hours you considered yourself an expert on her motives, better qualified to judge them than her fiancé.”
“Where did you hear this? Charles and I were alone that morning—” William stopped, sighing loudly. “Caroline was there.”
“And apparently she has excellent eavesdropping skills.”
“Lizzy, you know Caroline would say and do anything to separate us. She proved that last summer in New York. I can’t believe you’re accepting her word without question.”
“I’m not. I barely slept last night because I was working so hard to deny it, or to find some way that it wasn’t your fault. Do you think I want this to be the truth? But you can’t always get what you want. So let’s find out if she was telling the truth. Did you, or did you not, tell Charles that Jane wasn’t the right sort of wife for him?”
He ran one hand through his hair. “Yes, but that was because—”
“Did you, or did you not, tell him that Jane was probably after his money?”
William hesitated. “I suggested the possibility to put him on his guard, but—”
“And did you, or did you not, repeat that ridiculous, unfounded accusation last Saturday at the airport?”
“Yes.” His chin jutted forward. He wouldn’t submit to an interrogation from anyone, not even Elizabeth. “But it wasn’t unfounded, not in May, and not last weekend either. Did Jane tell you who was here on Saturday morning when I delivered your gifts?”
“I can’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“I overheard your mother advising Jane on the best way to try to win him back so she could get a rich husband after all. This is the woman who raised Jane. Are you asking me to believe that your sister escaped years of your mother’s influence unscathed, that there’s not a grain of truth in all the crowing about Jane getting her hands on the money?”
“So I guess that makes me a gold-digger, too. I had the same mother.”
“I’ve always known you weren’t like that. But you and your mother don’t get along, so you weren’t as much under her influence.”
“So that was Jane’s mistake? She was respectful to Mom? If she’d snarled at Mom at every opportunity, that would have lifted her above suspicion? You live in a twisted world, William.”
He ignored her sarcasm. “That wasn’t the only time I’d heard your mother rhapsodizing about Charles’s money. The night of the rehearsal dinner she walked around with your aunt gloating about how she’d raised Jane to understand the importance of a rich husband. So when Jane refused to sign the prenup, what other conclusion could anyone reach? At least, anyone objective, who wasn’t blinded by affection.”
“You’re the one who’s been blind. Jane adores Charles, and losing him broke her heart. She had good reasons for refusing to sign the prenup, and you know that perfectly well. You’re just twisting everything to suit your purposes because you can’t stand to be wrong about anything.”
“The loss of one’s claim to a large fortune is an excellent reason to refuse to sign a prenup.” William was angry now. “There’s no need to twist that. It speaks for itself. Even if I was wrong about her feelings, there was plenty of reason to mistrust her motives. And as for Jane being a less-than-perfect wife for Charles in other ways, that’s the simple truth. She’s not accustomed to spending her life planning huge parties and attending charity events, which is what she’d have to do in the Bingley family.”
“Oh, and that’s all such rocket science. You sound just like you did the day I met you, looking down your nose at anybody who isn’t at your ‘social level.’”
He heaved a loud sigh. “I’ve apologized and apologized for that. When can we finally bury it in the past?”
“As soon as you stop keeping it alive with your snobbery. By the way, you do realize that my background is the same as Jane’s, right? If she’s not sophisticated enough to marry Charles, that must mean I’m totally unfit to be a Darcy.”
“You’ll be fine. We live more quietly than the Bingleys.” He had thought about this question, though he doubted it would have prevented him from marrying Elizabeth in any case. “And Gran will teach you what you need to know, just like she did with my mother.”
“Yeah, and we all know how well that turned out,” she spat out. “Still, how nice that you have someone standing by to complete my education, since evidently my parents did such a pathetic job. I must say, you have a unique approach to convincing a woman to marry you, insulting her family and her upbringing.”
Something gave way inside William and he lashed out. “I didn’t think you’d need to be convinced. But apparently you’d like me to woo you with empty flattery about your family. Have you considered what it would be like for a family like mine to be related, even by marriage, to some of your relatives? You weren’t at my table at the rehearsal dinner to see the fool your mother made of herself. And as for Kitty and Lydia, I can see it all too clearly, the two of them at Thanksgiving dinner at the New York townhouse, giggling and shrieking and speculating in loud voices about which of the men at the table is the best endowed.”
Elizabeth flinched and turned white. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and her eyes glittered with fury. “How dare you?”
In a rush of remorse, William realized what he had said. “Lizzy, I’m sorry. I got angry and I didn’t think what I was saying.” He stepped toward her, reaching out to take her into his arms.
She backed away from him. “You meant every word. As if you have such a wonderful family to brag about. First there’s your cousin, the Playboy of the Western World. And you had the nerve to tell Charles that he and Jane were involved!"
"All I told him was that they had a platonic friendship."
She scoffed. "Except for the 'non-platonic' parts that you invented, to make Charles think Jane was sleeping around."
”I did not,” he retorted, squaring his shoulders. “And if Caroline told you that--"
Elizabeth interrupted him, her tone shrill. "And then there’s your grandmother, who has you so terrified that you tiptoe around, afraid to defy her in anything. Not to mention that she’s an inveterate snob. But at least you come by it honestly.”
William swallowed, reining in the anger that flared inside him. “Lizzy, let’s not do this.”
“Oh, I’m just getting started. Then there’s your sister, who’s running all over town doing heaven knows what while you look the other way. Because after all, everything a Darcy does is right and proper by definition.”
He clenched his jaw. “Lizzy, I know you’re angry, but I won’t have you speaking that way about Georgiana.”
“You won’t have me speaking that way? Since when do I take orders from you?” She folded her arms over her chest. “I think you’d better leave.”
“I can’t. Too much is at stake. Let’s take a deep breath and discuss this rationally. You’re upset, and you have a right to be, but I know you love me. And I’d be lost without you, cara.”
“I can’t see why you’d say that.” She counted the various points on her fingers in an exaggerated pantomime. “I’m from a horrible family, brought up so badly that I’d need a second education so I wasn’t an embarrassment to your exalted family. I have a greedy sister who isn’t worthy of one of your college buddies. Never mind that he’s so weak he might as well be a dummy sitting on your lap. Oh, and I almost forgot. I’m so pathetic that I can’t get a job without you writing a check. Sounds like you’re well rid of me.”
He grabbed her arms, pulling her toward him. “Stop it. You’re making this so much worse than it needs to be. The important thing is that we love each other, and we belong together.”
She yanked herself free from his grasp. “You don’t love me. You just want to own me, but I’m not for sale. As for us belonging together, even if I could overlook everything you’ve done, how could I be with someone who considers me so utterly beneath him?”
“But I don’t—”
“I asked you to leave. Please don’t make me ask again.” She stood staring at him, her arms folded across her chest.
“I need for you to go, William. Now.”
As little as William wanted to leave things this way, he could tell that further argument was pointless at present. She needed time to cool down, and then she would be more reasonable. “All right. I’ll go. But I’ll be back after you’ve had time to think things through. I’m not letting you go, Lizzy. I can’t do that.”
“That’s a choice you don’t get to make. Goodbye, William.” She stood still, her face expressionless.
His instincts cried out to enfold her in an embrace, to gain her forgiveness through the sheer power of his love. But he knew she would never allow it, so he forced his hands to remain at his sides. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Lizzy. I love you.”
William trudged down the hall to the elevator lobby, his distress multiplying with every step. Elizabeth had been so angry and so contemptuous of him. He hadn’t seen her this way since that night at her apartment in New York, and they had come so far since then, or at least it had seemed so. He was willing to do whatever she asked to atone for his transgressions, even though she was blowing everything out of proportion.
But what if there were nothing he could do? What if ‘Goodbye’ meant, ‘Goodbye forever’?
As the limo crossed town en route to Symphony Hall, William closed his eyes, a deep sense of foreboding gripping his heart.