Skinny-dipping had sounded enticing on a conceptual level, but when Elizabeth stepped onto the patio she became painfully aware of the practical issues involved. Her borrowed robe offered temporary coverage, but she would have to remove it soon or look like an idiot trying to wear it into the pool.
Except that they had been in bed then, and sometimes even covered by a sheet. Still, the near-darkness offered some camouflage. And if she jumped into the pool before he arrived on the terrace—yes, that was the answer.
But before she had the chance to take action, lights twinkled to life all around the patio. The pool came alive as well, glowing with underwater light. She glanced sharply behind her and saw William emerging from the house, a champagne glass in each hand.
“Is everything all set for Thursday?” she asked, forcing a cheerful smile onto her face as she hugged the robe around her.
“Sonya’s going to call back to confirm, but she said the earliest non-stop to New York leaves at nine thirty. I told her to book it.”
“We could have handled it ourselves. You shouldn’t have bothered her while she’s still visiting her mother.”
“That was part of the deal. She’s spending two weeks there, but we’re only counting it as one week of vacation because she’s doing some work while she’s there.” He handed her a glass. “I thought we ought to toast our evening alone together.”
“The flight will get us back to New York in time?”
“I double-checked with Mrs. Reynolds. Gran told her to serve the turkey precisely at six. As long as the flight isn’t delayed, we’ll be there in plenty of time.” He clinked glasses with her and they sipped their champagne.
“So then everything is in place.” Elizabeth inspected the film of moisture clinging to her glass. The longer they drank champagne and discussed logistics for their trip to New York, the longer she could stay bundled in her robe.
“There’s one minor complication,” he said. “Mrs. Reynolds said the guest rooms are occupied for the weekend. After I told Gran you weren’t coming, she invited some friends from Florida to stay at the house while they’re in town. And I think it’s better, at least for now, if you don’t share my room.”
“That goes without saying.” It didn’t take a diploma from a finishing school to know what Rose Darcy would think of that idea. “It’s just as well. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of descending on your family with so little notice. I mean, first I’m coming for Thanksgiving, and then I’m not, and now I am again. Their heads must be spinning.”
“Lizzy, you’re spending too much time worrying about my family.”
As far as Elizabeth was concerned, she was spending exactly the right amount of time. “What did your grandmother say when you told her about our plans?”
“She wasn’t home, but I left a message with Mrs. Reynolds. I’ll call again tomorrow.”
“I hope she isn’t going to object to me basically inviting myself to dinner.”
“You’re not.” He set down his glass and seized her hand. “It’s my house—well, Georgie’s and mine—and you’re my guest. Besides, once I explain everything she’ll be grateful to you for dragging me home.”
Elizabeth wished she could share his confidence. She sighed and forced herself to smile. “All right, then. I’ll call Sally in the morning and make sure her couch is still available.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” He fixed an imperious stare on her. “I told Sonya to book a room at the Four Seasons.”
“Oh, no, I don’t need anything that fancy.”
William lifted his chin, every inch the lord of the manor. “It’s not just for you. I’ll be staying there, too.”
He took the glass from her hand and set it on the table. Then he grasped her shoulders, drawing her toward him. “If you think I’m spending my nights alone when you’re in the same city ….” His lips brushed hers in a soft, seductive caress. “Think again.”
She had to admit, she wouldn’t have liked being apart from him either. “Your grandmother won’t approve.”
“She’ll have to learn to live with it.”
“I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you explain that to her.”
“It doesn’t need to be a big issue,” he said mildly. “When I leave the house I’ll tell her I’m escorting you to the hotel.”
“And she won’t notice that it takes you all night?”
“Depending on her schedule, she might not. As long as she doesn’t see me walk in the door, she won’t officially know where I slept, so she’ll have deniability. That’s the way we always handled it when—” He stopped abruptly, pressing his lips together.
“When you spent the night with other women.” She watched a large moth flit past, no doubt on a collision course with one of the patio lights.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sighing.
“Let’s not worry about the past.” She ran a teasing finger across the patch of bare chest revealed by his robe. “You’re mine now, and that’s what matters.”
She could tell from the warmth kindling in his eyes that she was about to be kissed. And so she was, and thoroughly, her head cradled in his large, warm hands.
A sound filtered through the haze of desire enveloping her. She drew away from him and cocked her head to one side. Either his kiss had started bells pealing, or else— “Is that the phone?”
He wore a dazed frown for a moment, but then his eyes widened. “I’d better get that.” He strode off toward the house at a brisk pace.
She sipped her champagne absently and stared into the pool, watching tiny waves ripple across its surface. At last she realized that she had been gifted with another opportunity to take partial cover in the water. Her hands dropped to the belt on her robe.
She whirled to face William as he crossed the patio, a phone in his hand. “It’s Sonya,” he said. “She needs to talk to you about your flight home on Sunday.”
“Oh, gosh, I’d forgotten about that.”
Elizabeth took the phone and spoke briefly with Sonya, making a choice from among the available flights from New York to San Francisco. “Thank you so much for handling this,” she said in closing.
“Just doing my job,” Sonya replied cheerfully. “Incidentally, that was a good call on your part, talking William into coming home for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“He told you that, did he?”
“I told him he was lucky to have a girlfriend with common sense, since apparently he’s running on empty in that department. Mrs. Darcy takes family holidays seriously. You know, ‘family’ with a capital F, in gigantic letters with curlicues shooting out at every angle.”
“I thought so.” Elizabeth ordered herself to stop casting William’s grandmother as a dragon of mythic proportions. Rose might be imperious and demanding, but she didn’t command the sun to rise, nor did she orchestrate the movement of the tides.
William, who had been watching her with growing impatience, slipped off his robe, and Rose Darcy vanished from Elizabeth’s thoughts. She licked her lips involuntarily and watched him amble toward her with the grace of a jungle cat, a wicked glint in his eye. Then he stepped close behind her and massaged her shoulders. Drawing her hair aside, he pressed a line of kisses to her neck. “Ready for a swim?” he murmured in her ear, dragging the lobe gently between his teeth. She shivered, her hand clamping around the phone.
“Is there anything else you need?” Sonya asked.
“No.” Hard as Elizabeth tried to regulate her voice, the word came out as a breathy sigh.
“Then I won’t keep you any longer.” Sonya’s tone was brisk. “Have a nice evening.”
Elizabeth summoned up her self-control and managed, just barely, to speak in a steady tone despite the gentle but insistent hands slipping inside her robe. “Thanks again, Sonya. Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Same to you, and tell the boss man he’d better not call me again till next week. As soon as I finish booking your flight I’m officially on Thanksgiving vacation.”
Elizabeth said goodbye and slipped the phone into the pocket of her robe. William, his breath hot on her neck, reached around from behind, untied the belt on her robe, and drew the garment open. “My beautiful Lizzy,” he whispered.
She turned in his arms, heat rushing through her as his hands slid up to push the robe off her shoulders. She stiffened for a moment but allowed it to drift to the ground, where it pooled at her feet. Then his arms came around her and she forgot her hesitation, mesmerized by the intoxicating sensation of skin against skin, softness against strength.
“I like skinny-dipping so far,” he murmured in her ear, his head dropping to press kisses along her shoulder.
“Except I think it’s supposed to involve getting wet.” Her hands roved along his back, relishing the warmth of his smooth skin and the ripple of the toned muscles underneath.
“I don’t know about that. I might just carry you over to one of the chaise lounges and have my way with you.” He hefted her into his arms, a challenge evident in the rakish tilt of one eyebrow.
She looped her arms around his neck and mirrored his expression. “You say that as though you’re expecting me to object.”
His grin widened. “I love it when we agree.”
Ordinarily William felt mellow and sleepy after making love, but perhaps because of the piquancy of the outdoor setting, their tryst in the lounge chair had left him energized. Elizabeth was the one who seemed languid, her head lolling on his shoulder as she rested in his arms. They sat on the concrete steps leading into the pool, the water lapping just below their shoulders. He brushed her tangled hair off her forehead and pressed a kiss to her damp skin. Above their heads, the sky glittered with stars; he marveled at the sight and at the profound peace filling his soul. “I have to ask once more. Are you sure we have to leave here in thirty-six hours?”
“I don’t want to leave either,” she said, kissing his jaw. “But we still have tomorrow. And I hope we can come back someday.”
“Depend on it.” He had already assessed the immediate possibilities. New Year’s would have been a perfect opportunity, but for another commitment. “Incidentally, I’m performing in a benefit concert at the Kennedy Center on New Year’s Eve. They’re calling it the Concert for America. A patriotic theme: American musicians playing works by American composers. I’ve had it booked for a while but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it.”
“That sounds like quite an honor. I suppose the President will be there?”
“Yes. In fact, there’s a White House luncheon to honor the participants.” It wouldn’t be his first time at the White House, but he was still looking forward to the visit. “I’ll be in Washington for two or three days, and I was hoping you’d go with me.”
Her eyes shone. “I’d love to.”
“Good. Richard is coming along, and he said something about inviting Charlotte.”
She eyed him triumphantly. “See, I told you those two have something going on.”
“I bow before your superior powers of observation.” He brushed that issue aside, returning to his primary concern. “We can spend Christmas in New York, and then go on to Washington.”
She hesitated. “We need to figure out how to handle the holidays. I need to spend some time with my family. In fact, even though I know you’d rather avoid it, I’d like you to come with me. You need to get to know them better.”
He nodded. “As you say, we’ll have to work something out.” Preferably something involving the minimum possible exposure to Mrs. Bennet.
“Are they televising the concert?”
“On PBS, some time in January. It’s going to be a gala affair with a black tie reception afterwards.”
“I hope I have something grand enough to wear.” She frowned. “Maybe the dress I wore to the party at Rosings. It’s more appropriate for warm weather, but it would do in a pinch. I just hope it’s not too plain.”
He would never forget the way she had looked that night, the living embodiment of the dreams that had filled his long, lonely summer. But she deserved to feel like a queen. “While we’re in New York, let me buy you a new dress, something special. If you want it can be your Christmas present.”
“My Rosings dress was that bad?”
“Of course not. You looked beautiful.” He stroked her cheek. “But Georgie always seems to want new dresses for special occasions, and I thought you might feel the same way. Besides, I did warn you that I intend to give you lots of gifts.”
“So you did.” She sighed. “Well, I don’t want you to get in the habit of supplying my wardrobe, but maybe just this once.” Her eyes sparkled. “I have to admit, I’d love to be the belle of the ball.”
“You’d be that even if you showed up wrapped in burlap.” He thought it best not to mention that the dress would be only one of her Christmas gifts. Among other things, she would need jewelry to complement the gown.
“I assume we’ll be photographed together at some point?” She skimmed her hand along the surface of the water, creating eddies gilded with threads of light.
“Then it’ll be our public debut as a couple, sort of.”
William hadn’t thought of that. Their relationship was common knowledge at the conservatory, but as far as he knew, the news had traveled no further. That was about to change. “You may get a little attention from the New York society columnists. Maybe not the first time they see us together, but eventually they’ll notice a pattern.”
She smiled. “‘Eligible bachelor snagged by West Coast nobody?’ That sort of thing?”
“I’m afraid so. The family is prominent enough that they keep tabs on us, which causes Gran and Aunt Eleanor no end of distress every time Page Six covers one of Richard’s peccadilloes. I’m not interesting enough for the gossip columns, but now and then I’m mentioned by a society columnist, or in an article about New York bachelors.”
Her eyebrows lifted briefly and she pressed her lips together, but she stayed silent.
“What? Am I about to hear some smart-aleck remark? That if they knew me, they’d banish me from the ‘10 Most Eligible’ lists?”
She made a sound like a tiny cough, though her expression suggested it had been a stifled laugh. “No. It’s just, I used to have copies of a few of those magazine articles.”
“Is that so?” He couldn’t help smirking. “Where do you keep them? I’d like to see your William Darcy collection someday.”
“I said I used to have them. That day in New York, when you brought me the flowers and I ripped you to shreds, I went home and did the same thing to the magazine articles. And then I mangled the programs I’d saved from your concerts and tore up an autographed photo I got at Interlochen when I was sixteen. I kept your CDs, but that was it.”
“Ah.” So much for feeling smug. “Yes, during my stint as a complete horse’s ass.”
“Not complete, but pretty close,” she teased. “Fortunately you turned out to have a few redeeming qualities.”
“But why did the CDs escape your wrath? Wouldn’t it have been satisfying to shatter at least one?”
She waved away a curious insect skating across the water. “I had big problems with William Darcy the man, but William Darcy the musician still held me spellbound. It would have been a sacrilege to destroy your music.”
In the warm silence that followed he scooped water into his hand and drizzled it over her shoulders, admiring the way her skin glistened in the dim light. The sounds of the night came into focus: the gentle sloshing of the water against the edges of the pool, the ocean churning in the distance, and the song of the tree frogs, serenading nearby females in the hopes of inciting their interest. He grinned—the things the male of every species would do to attract a female!
His thoughts drifted back to the upcoming trip to Washington. “It’s going to mean more to me than you can imagine, seeing you in the audience at the New Year’s Eve concert. That was the hardest thing about those concerts in San Francisco.”
She stared at him, frowning slightly.
He continued. “I’d envisioned the whole thing, with you sitting in your seat down front, smiling up at me. And then, what it would be like to play for you. And at the end, the pride in your eyes when everyone applauded. But instead your seat was empty.” He could still feel the pain that had crushed his spirit that night.
I’m so sorry.” She rested her hand over his heart. “I hate that I hurt you.”
“It haunted me, all those long nights in Australia. That empty seat, a symbol of my empty life. But I still played for you that night. In my imagination you were standing behind me, your hand on my shoulder, but of course that was just a fantasy. You couldn’t hear me.”
She hesitated, licking her lips. “But I could. I mean, I did. I was in the auditorium.”
“Your seat was empty.”
“I sat in the back.”
“You came to the concert after all?” His eyes widened. “But, then, why—”
“Why didn’t I sit in my seat? I went there to talk to you, maybe to end things between us. I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t mislead you by sitting there as your special guest. At first I thought I’d wait in the upstairs lobby till you finished playing. But angry as I was, I still had to see you play. It’s like I said. William Darcy the musician can do no wrong.”
“You were there.” He still couldn’t believe it.
“You were brilliant.” She stroked his jaw tenderly. “But I could hear the pain pouring out of you. It was like a cry for help, one nobody else could hear. I wanted to rush up on stage and wrap myself around you.”
“Why didn’t you come and see me, the way you’d planned?”
“I cried most of the way through the concerto. Your pain was so raw, and I was an emotional wreck by the end; I had to get away. But evidently I have a masochistic streak, because instead of going home I drove up into the Marin Headlands. I sat there, right where we’d been together, and cried till I couldn’t cry anymore. And when I got home you were there, waiting for me.”
William tightened his arms around her. “I wish we could go back in time and fix everything that went wrong,” he muttered, his throat tight.
“I know. But maybe we had to go through it to get to where we are now. And I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.”
“Amen to that.” Their lips met for a warm, reassuring kiss. His sudden chuckle interrupted their embrace.
“What’s so funny?”
He grinned. “It just occurred to me that I have a gorgeous naked woman on my lap, and instead of enjoying it I’ve been wallowing in melancholy.”
“Well, artistic geniuses are supposed to be tortured, right?” She withdrew from his arms and hopped off his lap, standing in the waist-deep water.
“But I think you’re right; we need to lighten up and enjoy ourselves. I’ll race you to the other end of the pool!”
Before he could react she plunged into the water, her strokes long and sure. By the time he reached the opposite wall, she was treading water calmly, her face glowing with triumph. “I won.”
“You cheated,” he sputtered. “You were halfway across before I even started.”
“Aw, my big studly fellow can’t stand to get beaten by a girl. Okay, fine. That was just a warm-up lap. This time you can call the start.”
He did, and won easily.
“Best two out of three,” she sang. “Ready, set, go!”
His reaction was sluggish, and she touched the opposite wall a second ahead of him.
“I think we ought to make this next lap interesting,” he said, giving her an appraising glance. “A wager, perhaps.”
“And what stakes did you have in mind?”
“The winner decides how we spend the rest of the night.” He lifted an eyebrow.
“And if I choose going into the house and finishing the piña colada cheesecake?” she asked with a mischievous grin.
He wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sure we could devise a creative way to eat it. But it’s a moot point, because I’m not going to lose.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Her high spirits were infectious, and he couldn’t ever recall having this much fun in a swimming pool. “All right, this race is for the gold medal. Let’s go.”
He won the final heat through sheer grit. He stood preening at the shallow end of the pool, raking his hands through his waterlogged hair.
“All hail the victor,” she said, running a finger down his torso. “All right, I’m a woman of my word. Name your spoils.”
He reached for her, drawing her into intimate, incendiary contact from head to toe. “I want you to massage every inch of me.”
“Wow, talk about a punishment!” A wicked smile lit her face. “Especially considering that I can’t seem to keep my hands off you anyway. But is it okay if we go inside? I could probably do a better job on the bed.”
“Then inside it is. But we’re skinny-dipping again tomorrow night. I have plans for us that involve the whirlpool.”