“Elizabeth Marie Bennet, just where do you think you’re going dressed like that? A lady wouldn’t dream of leaving the house in such a state.”
It was a perfect reproduction of her mother’s voice, echoing from Elizabeth’s childhood. Frances Bennet would have collapsed in an apoplectic fit at the sight of Elizabeth crossing Pemberley’s lawn clad in nothing but her nightshirt. But her mother wasn’t there and William needed her, whether he knew it or not.
The grounds were large enough and the night dark enough that she knew she might miss him, especially if he had chosen to walk off his frustrations on the beach. She didn’t know the location of the path leading down there, nor was she likely to find it in the darkness. Despite the celestial bodies filling the night sky, only the slim crescent of the moon provided any illumination.
She detoured around a majestic traveler’s palm, its leaves rustling lazily in the light breeze, and saw a faint shadow near the cliff. She hurried in that direction and found William on a small terrace she hadn’t noticed before. He sat slumped forward on a bench, his chin resting on his palm as he stared out over the ocean.
He sat up and turned in her direction. She scrutinized him as she approached, but saw only answering wariness in his eyes. “I thought maybe you’d be down on the beach,” she said as she sat down beside him.
“I considered it,” he said, his voice barely louder than the ocean. “But the path is steep and I didn’t want you to hurt yourself trying to find your way in the dark.”
“You knew I’d follow you out here, even though you asked me not to?”
He gave her a sidelong glance. “Obedience isn’t your strong suit.”
“If that’s what you’re looking for, you’d better get a cocker spaniel.” Her expression softened. “But, seriously, I couldn’t just sit inside and wait. If our situations were reversed, wouldn’t you have come out here to find me?”
“Probably not. I’d be too afraid of making you angry.” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his thighs, his hands clasped. “I don’t have your courage.”
“Are you kidding? You dropped everything to come to Barbados, even though you weren’t sure what would happen once you got here. And when you came to San Francisco in August, you had no idea if I’d welcome you or not.” She grasped his hands. “Don’t you see? We’re together now because you followed your heart despite the risks.”
“I love you so much,” he said in a low voice. “Too much, maybe.”
“What do you mean?”
He shook his head as though dislodging the thought. “I’m sorry about what happened earlier. I behaved … abominably.”
She released his hands and rubbed his back, the fragile silk of his robe sliding against her fingers. “I wish you wouldn’t let it upset you so much,” she said. “We just need to be more careful about protection.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He swallowed and pressed his lips together. “Did I hurt you?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
“But I behaved like he did. Shoving you down and jumping on top of you and ….” He sighed and stared at the ground. “I’m so sorry.”
Elizabeth wanted to reassure him but she didn’t want to lie, and his rough urgency had summoned echoes of the past. She gnawed her lip and stared at the ocean, the dark waters splashed with glimmers of light from the slender moon. The waves of anxiety rolling off his body threatened to engulf her, so she took a deep breath. “No. You weren’t like him, not really. He focused entirely on himself. To him I was just a convenient body, to be used and then discarded. You could never treat me like that; it’s simply not in you.”
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “But you sounded frightened when you stopped me. It reminded me of that other time, the first time we tried to make love.”
“This was entirely different,” she said, grateful that he didn’t know how close she had come to a full-blown flashback. “I only asked you to stop because we were about five seconds from doing something risky.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted you so much I wasn’t thinking clearly. You have that effect on me.”
“Ditto.” She smiled and resumed her gentle massage of his tight back muscles. “And while I admit your approach was rather aggressive and hurried, and, well ….”
“Utterly lacking in finesse?”
She was pleased to see a glint of rueful humor in his expression. “Okay, yes. You lacked your usual finesse. And I admit, if things between us were like that all the time … well, if you were that kind of man I wouldn’t be here.”
“I promise you, it will never happen again.”
“Let’s not be hasty. A bit of caveman machismo now and then might be fun.” She raised her eyebrows. “What I’m trying to say is, I was a willing participant, so quit beating yourself up about it.”
He gave her a wan smile. “Thank you for understanding.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I’m miles from understanding. I’m just saying not to torture yourself.”
“All right, I won’t.” He rose to his feet, tightening the belt on his robe. “Shall we go back inside?”
“Not yet. We have more to talk about.”
“It’s late, and I’m tired.” His eyes were fixed on the house, a pale white ghost hovering in the shadows. “We can talk tomorrow.” He stepped off the stone terrace and waited for her on the lawn, arms crossed over his chest.
She stood and faced him, speaking with all the authority she could muster. “This can’t wait till tomorrow. You had some kind of emotional meltdown earlier, and I need to know what happened.”
“Nothing happened. I—” He shook his head, his lips pressed together in a grim line. “Nothing happened.”
Elizabeth gritted her teeth. She had never met a person more reluctant to share his feelings. “Come on, William. That’s obviously not true. I hate it when you shut me out.”
An emotion she couldn’t read flickered in his eyes. She held out her hand, and he allowed himself, though with obvious reluctance, to be led back to the bench. “Now tell me what’s bothering you.”
He stared at their joined hands in silence. As she waited, the rumble of the ocean seeped into her brain and she began to realize how tired she was. Maybe it was a mistake to push him when he was overwrought and they were both tired. Maybe tomorrow morning—
“I had a dream. A nightmare, actually.”
She leapt on his comment, her exhaustion forgotten. “What was it about?”
“I was running in the fog, chasing … something. Something I had to have; my life seemed to depend on it. But it flew away and I was left alone.”
“It sounds like an upsetting dream.”
“I always awaken from it feeling empty and cold.”
“Always? You’ve had the dream before?”
He withdrew his hand from her grasp and leaned back against the bench, fiddling with the belt on his robe. “When I was a teenager I had it for months, but then it stopped. It started again while I was in Australia. It got to where I preferred to stay awake all night.”
“Poor William. No wonder you’re so tired.” She touched his silk-covered knee. “So that’s why you went downstairs to the piano? Because of the dream?”
He nodded. “I knew it would be a long time before I could sleep again, and I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“If it ever happens again, please disturb me. Isn’t that what you’d want me to do if I had a nightmare? Wake you up so you could comfort me?”
“Yes, but I’m in the habit of relying on the piano when I can’t sleep.”
“Maybe you need to learn some new habits.” She winced at her words. It was bad enough to be jealous of a musical instrument without demonstrating it through her unintentionally sharp tone.
“The piano is always there for me, no matter what. Can I count on you for that?”
It wasn’t his words that surprised her as much as the knife edge in his voice. Clearly she had touched a nerve. “Well, right now we’re living on opposite coasts, so I guess you’re right. I can’t always be there.”
“That’s not—” He stopped abruptly.
“That’s not what?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not important.”
But obviously it was. She flashed a beguiling smile, hoping he would respond to a lighter approach. “Well, in that case, what have you got to lose by telling me?”
He stood up, his chin tilted at a defiant angle. “Elizabeth, it’s late and I’m not in the mood for games. I’m going back to bed and I’d like you to come with me.”
His evasiveness and his truculent expression convinced her more than ever that they were nearing the crux of the problem. She jumped to her feet, wincing as a pebble dug into her heel, and stepped into his path. “Why won’t you talk to me? This is exactly how we got into trouble before, by hiding things from each other.”
He inhaled a labored breath that seemed to tremble through his body, and then he stared at her, his eyes dark and restless. Just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer her, a stream of impassioned words tumbled from his mouth. “You want to know what I’m thinking? All right, I’ll tell you. You want me to turn to you when I’m troubled, and to trust you with all my secrets. But how can I do that when I can’t be sure you’ll still be with me next year, or next month, or even tomorrow?”
“I’m not going anywhere. Obviously something could happen that we can’t control, but—”
Dark emotion flared in his eyes and he grasped her shoulders. “I’m not talking about one of us getting struck by lightning. I’m talking about wondering how long it’ll be before the next time you get angry about something I’ve done and you cut me out of your life again, maybe for good this time.”
“That’s not going to happen. I love you.”
“You said you loved me before, but you still pushed me away. That night in San Francisco, I left you not knowing if I’d ever see you again.” He rubbed the heel of one hand against his eye, his lips pressed together in an angry line.
She rested a hand over his heart in a futile attempt to soothe his pain. “I know, and I’m sorry. It was horrible, knowing you were so miserable.”
“But not horrible enough to change your mind.” Now that he had started talking, he seemed unable to stop. “You knew it would be torture for me to go to Australia thinking I’d lost you, but still you shut me out. I spent two weeks in hell, wondering how I was going to live without you. Every day I prayed that you’d call, especially after I sent the letter, but I didn’t hear a word from you until a few days ago.”
“I know. I wanted to call, but at first when I got the letter I was confused, and—”
His fingers dug into her shoulders. “Lizzy, you broke my heart!” he cried. “How could you do that, if you loved me?”
The ragged misery in his voice tore through her. “Are you saying you don’t believe I love you?”
“I thought I did, but ….” His voice trailed off. He relaxed his grip on her shoulders and stared past her at the ocean.
Elizabeth gently captured a tear sliding from the corner of his eye. “I do love you, William, so much. Please believe me.”
“It tortured me to think that I meant so little to you, that you could let me go so easily.”
“Easily? It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I told you that awful night that I still loved you, and it was the truth.”
“It was hard to believe that when you wouldn’t even speak to me,” he said, his eyes flashing. “And I was angry that you dismissed me that way. You can’t imagine how it felt, loving you so much but hating you a little, too.”
Indignation flooded her. “You think I can’t imagine how that felt?” She laughed, a dry, harsh sound. “I wish. Have you forgotten that you broke my heart too?”
“I haven’t forgotten, and I’m sorry. But if you hadn’t sent me packing, you would have spared us both a great deal of pain.”
“We were apart for longer than we should have been. I agree with that. But that night, you didn’t want to talk together and work things out.”
“That’s absurd,” he snapped. “Of course I did.”
“No, you wanted to rationalize what you’d done. You thought if I understood your reasons, I’d approve of your actions.”
“But isn’t that why you finally called me? Because you read my letter, and then you understood?”
“Be honest with yourself, William. By the time you wrote the letter you’d started to see where you’d been wrong, and you weren’t as defensive. You explained, but you apologized, too.”
He opened his mouth to speak but closed it again, his gaze dropping to the ground.
“And there’s something else,” she continued, flipping her windblown hair behind her shoulders. “It wasn’t so much what you said in the letter as the way I felt when I read it. After that, I knew I had to be with you in spite of everything. Which is ironic, because that’s what I was afraid would happen that night in San Francisco.”
“I don’t understand.” He was calmer now, his frown one of confusion and not anger.
“I was afraid that if you took me in your arms I’d forgive you everything, because I love you. I was afraid that we’d just shove it all out of sight without resolving anything. And the next time it happened, the pain would be unbearable.”
He stared at her, a spark of comprehension in his eyes. “I never thought of it that way.”
“I needed time to think clearly. Except that after you left, it hurt so much to think about you that I tried not to. But none of the distractions I tried worked. Not constant activity, not music, not even ice cream.” She dragged a shaky breath into her lungs.
“Nothing, nobody has ever hurt me that much, not even ….” She paused, every muscle in her body trembling. “Because I’ve never trusted a man this much … or loved anyone this much.”
He shook his head and gathered her into his arms, and with a low sob she pressed against him, locking her arms around his waist. Elizabeth buried her head against his chest, no longer able to hold back the tears that soaked into the thin silk of his robe. His fingers combed through her hair and she burrowed closer, pressing her lips to the base of his throat where his pulse thrummed out a powerful rhythm.
“I’m so sorry, cara,” he whispered. “For everything.”
“I’m sorry, too. For everything.”
How much time passed while they clung to each other, she would never know, but eventually she felt him relax his convulsive hold on her. She lifted her head, dabbed at her tear-stained face, and gave him a tremulous smile. “I hate to cry, and I’ve done more of it since I met you than in the last ten years.”
He smiled, brushing his thumb over the corner of his eye. “I’m reluctant to admit it, but so have I. My father would be disgusted with me.” He sighed and his smile faded. “Lizzy, I need you to make me a promise.”
“What is it?”
“‘Love’ is such an inadequate word for what I feel for you. My world is a different place because you’re in it. You connect me—to people, and to things outside myself. And ….” He tucked a curl behind her ear. “You’re like gossamer. You spread light into all the dark corners of my mind and heart.”1
A solitary tear trickled down his cheek. She dabbed it away with one finger, her vision clouding as her own eyes grew damp. “Oh, William,” she whispered.
“But I can’t live with the constant fear that the next time I do something you don’t like, you’ll push me away again. I need you to promise that no matter what happens to cause problems between us, we’ll talk about it and try to make it right. Otherwise—” He paused, his gaze steadfast. “Can you promise me that?”
“Yes. I promise.” She didn’t trust her voice any further, so she drew his head down to hers and kissed him instead. Then she met his solemn gaze. “I can’t promise that we’ll never disagree, but from now on we’ll work things out together.” She caressed his cheek. “It’s too bad we can’t just decide to see eye to eye on everything.”
“You could just agree with everything I say.” He kissed the tip of her nose.
“Dream on, big fellow.” She tried for a disdainful smirk, but his mischievous grin was too infectious. A warm smile stole across her face instead. “Seriously, though, you know we’re both too pigheaded to have a placid relationship, right?”
“I suppose so, but I take exception to being called pigheaded. I prefer ‘strong-willed.’” He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Though in your case, my love—”
“Don’t even start.” She pushed him away in mock annoyance, but he grabbed her hands and swiftly covered her mouth with his. She melted at once, her capitulation announced by a soft sigh, and her hands slid up his chest and around his neck. It wasn’t fair that he could reduce her to a state of boneless contentment using only his lips.
By the time he lifted his head, his eyes shone with sleepy desire. “We’ll work it out,” he said in a low, husky voice. “We have to. We belong together.”
She nodded, “I don’t think I really believed it till now.”
“It took you long enough,” he said, pausing to brush a butterfly kiss over her lips. “I’ve known it since the first time I kissed you.”
She dismissed his smug remark with a narrow-eyed smile and a shake of her head and returned to her original point. “In spite of that, we’re going to argue sometimes. We just need to learn how to do it without drawing blood. I realize that’s mostly on me; I’ve been letting my anger get out of control, and I know you’ve suffered because of it. I can see why you’d be afraid to make me angry at this point.”
He nodded reluctantly. “I hate to say it, but there’s some truth in that.”
“I’m working on it. Apparently it happens to people sometimes after a traumatic event, but that’s no excuse. I need to be able to get angry without losing control.” She paused. “And we need to make another promise.”
He raised his eyebrows and waited.
“We need to talk about our thoughts and feelings, both of us. No hiding behind walls. No deciding what the other person needs or doesn’t need to know. I’m not saying we aren’t entitled to our private thoughts, but we need to share a lot more than we do, especially if something is affecting our relationship or might affect it in the future. Can you promise me that?”
“I promise to do my best, but I may need some help at first.”
“I’ll give you all the help you need. Just remember, when it seems like I’m nagging you, that you asked for it.”
He gave her a crooked grin. “I walked right into that one.”
“And I promise, too,” she said. It would be hard for William to keep this promise—she knew that—but she thought of Jane’s approach with Charles: cautious optimism combined with micro-management as a backup strategy.
He released her and yawned behind his hand. “Now can we go back to bed?”
“Not yet. We need to talk about my job at the conservatory.”
He grimaced. “Can’t it wait till morning?”
“I know you’re tired, but this is still hanging over us.”
“All right,” he said with a sigh. “But I need to sit down.”
He took her hand and led her back to the bench, seating himself and pulling her down onto his lap. She draped her arms around his neck and spoke with complete candor. “You shouldn’t have done it, William. You inserted yourself into a situation you didn’t understand, and then you made it much worse by hiding the truth from me. There were so many times you could have told me, but you chose not to. You may have damaged my professional reputation with your actions, but that’s actually easier to forgive because it was unintentional. Hiding the truth from me, though—that made me feel so hurt and betrayed, to realize that you didn’t respect me enough to be honest with me”
“Which I regret more than I can say. But I hope you believe that I did all of it—even keeping the truth from you—because I loved you.”
“I do believe it. You explained in your letter, and even before that Jane helped me to understand. But I can’t have you arranging my life for me, especially without my knowledge, no matter how good your intentions are.”
He sighed. “I want the people I love to be happy. Why should I stand by and do nothing when I have the means to give them what they want?”
“You can always offer to help, but it has to be the other person’s decision to accept or not.”
“But you’re so independent, I know you’ll refuse, no matter what I offer. You wouldn’t even let me buy you a cell phone, and that was just a trivial gift.” He turned a pair of mournful puppy-dog eyes on her.
“To you, it was trivial,” she said, almost laughing at his brazen attempt to look pitiful, “but to me it wasn’t. Besides, the phone I bought still came from you, because you were paying my salary.”
“I don’t see it that way. You earned every penny. In fact, I used to wish you weren’t so dedicated, because you’d have had more time for me instead of constantly rushing off to school for extra rehearsals. It always seemed unfair that my money ended up depriving me of your company so often.”
“Hoist on your own petard, eh? Serves you right. Anyway, I suppose I was entitled to a good salary in return for putting up with Catherine de Bourgh curling her lip at me on a regular basis. Which reminds me.”
“Oh, no. Am I in trouble again?”
“Not this time. She told me that you offered to fund my replacement’s salary. I know you did that so I’d feel free to leave, and Catherine wouldn’t interfere. Thank you.”
He shook his head. “This is where you lose me. That wasn’t interference, too?”
“I guess it was, and I did tell you not to talk to her, but having the upper hand with Catherine was a rare treat so I’m willing to overlook it.” She stroked his sandpaper-rough jaw. “I realize this isn’t easy for you. You’re generous and loving and you just want to help. But the next time you decide to rearrange the continents for the sake of someone you love, stop and ask yourself if you’d be upset if the situations were reversed.”
“I have one condition.” He jutted his chin out. “I’m still going to give you presents, and if you think I’m going to ask your permission every time, you’re delusional.”
“Fair enough,” she replied. His imperious moods were the sexiest of all—at least, when she didn’t want to kill him, and sometimes even then.
He gave her a quick, hard kiss. “Now can we go back to bed?”
“I think so.” She jumped off his lap and extended her hand to help him up.
He made a show of struggling to his feet. “I hope you’re prepared to carry me into the house if I pass out from exhaustion along the way,” he grumbled.
“Watch it, mister, or I’ll suggest staying up to see the sunrise. I bet we wouldn’t have much longer to wait.”
“Forget it. I’ve seen too many sunrises lately.” He yawned, exaggerating it for theatrical effect, and then draped a heavy arm over her shoulders as they ambled toward the house.
“You know, if you’re that tired, maybe I should sleep in another room so I won’t disturb you.”
His disdainful stare made his opinion clear.
“Just kidding. Though I get the feeling you’re so tired you wouldn’t know the difference.”
“Trust me,” he said, tightening his arm around her shoulders. “I’d know.”
William leaned back against the pillows, his eyelids drooping. It would have been easy to surrender to the seductive comfort of the bed, but despite his exhaustion he didn’t want to fall asleep until he held Elizabeth in his arms. He lacked the energy for anything else, at least until morning.
“You’re still awake?” She stood silhouetted in the doorway to the bathroom, all curls and curves, her legs long and slender below the abbreviated hem of her nightshirt.
“I was waiting for you.” He instantly revised his assessment of his energy reserves.
She pulled back the cool white sheet and slipped beneath it, sliding into his arms. “Mmm,” she murmured against his neck. “This feels so good.”
Indeed it did. After the emotional upheaval of the past hours, it soothed his heart to lie beside her in their quiet haven and drift in a haze of contentment. They held each other gently, sharing long, slow kisses and lazy caresses, and playing a teasing game of footsie under the covers.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow when William began to unfasten the buttons of her nightshirt. “I thought you were tired.”
“I am, but I want to feel you—all of you—close to me.” He pushed her shirt open, pausing to appreciate the view. “I think we’ve had enough of barriers.”
She sat up, shrugged the nightshirt off her shoulders, and nestled back against him with a blissful sigh. He closed his eyes, breathing in the subtle jasmine scent wafting from the dark curls cascading onto the pillow. Her body against his felt like a warm silken cloud—that is, if clouds of silk had a luscious set of curves. He snickered at the thought.
“What’s so funny?” she murmured. Her fingers traced lazy designs on his chest, her light, teasing touch bringing his body roaring back to life.
“Just a crazy thought going through my head.”
Her hand drifted lower, causing a hitch of anticipation in his breathing, but she stopped at his waist. “There’s one more thing I need to ask you.”
“I know the dream brought back bad feelings for you, but I’m still not clear on what happened down in the parlor.”
“You mean why I turned into a pillaging barbarian?”
She raised her head, smiling, but as she spoke, her smile faded. “What I meant was, you talked about being angry with me. And I wondered if maybe anger got mixed in with your other feelings when we were downstairs.”
“Oh, Lizzy, no.” No wonder her voice sounded hesitant. “Cara, I would never take anger out on you that way.”
“I know you wouldn’t do it on purpose, but they say love and hate aren’t far removed from each other.”
“They are for me. No, it was a case of possessiveness run amok.” He smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead.
“You mean you were jealous?” She frowned. “You can’t possibly think there’s anyone else I want to be with.”
“Not that kind of possessiveness. I was thinking about it earlier, when you found me outside. My dream was about losing something of great value. I realize now, it was probably about you.”
“I wondered about that, but I thought I’d sound narcissistic if I suggested it.”
“I went downstairs to the piano to try to calm myself, but the dream took me back to the way I felt in Australia. And then I started to think about the possibility of losing you again because of some future disagreement, and how painful that would be.”
“Hence your musical choices,” she said, pressing a kiss to his chest, just above his heart. “Poor William.”
“And then you appeared, lovely and warm and fresh from my bed, and all I could think about was claiming you, in the most primal way possible, I suppose. I’m sorry, Lizzy.” His loss of control still embarrassed him, but fortunately she wasn’t holding a grudge.
“This has been eating at you.” Her hand traced a whorl on his chest.
“I’ve never felt as lonely as I did in Australia. At night I ached for you so much I couldn’t sleep, and most days all I could think about was that I’d lost the most wonderful woman in the world through my own idiocy.”
“My poor boy,” she whispered, caressing his cheek. “All alone halfway around the world. At least I had Jane looking out for me. I’m so sorry; I should have called you sooner.”
“I’m sure you can think of a way to make it up to me,” he said, arching an eyebrow in a clear invitation to licentious behavior.
“Is that so?” Two emerald eyes glittered in the near darkness, their expression unquestionably wicked. “Well, let’s see.”
She was exploring his mid-section, her hands caressing his hips, when she asked, “Would you really have broken up with me if I hadn’t promised to work through our problems from now on? You didn’t exactly say that, but you implied it.”
“I guess we’ll never know.”
But William did know, and later as he hovered over her, their bodies joined in a tender act of love, he confessed the truth. “I could never leave you,” he whispered. “It wouldn’t matter what you did.”
“Good,” she whispered back, drawing his head down for a kiss, “because I’m yours, body and soul.”
1 Shamelessly stolen from General Hospital, some time in 1995, nearly word-for-word. Probably written by Michele Val Jean. That line was so beautiful it has stayed in my mind for all these years.