William fought the urge to pout as he hung up his overcoat. He had imagined a hero’s welcome awaiting him at the hotel, befitting a conquering Caesar swaggering back to Rome. According to his script, his Cleopatra should have dashed down the hall and leapt into his waiting arms. Instead, the suite was silent, the living room dark, and his arms empty, with no Cleopatra in sight.
Perhaps he’d find her in the bedroom, maybe even in bed, awaiting him. With renewed vigor, he strode down the hall. But aside from the gold-wrapped chocolate mint reclining on each pillow, both the bed and the room were unoccupied. Then he heard splashing coming from the bathroom.
“Hi there,” Elizabeth said softly. She lounged in the tub, playing with the islets of bubbles floating on the water’s surface.
Eat your heart out, Caesar.
“Hello.” His eyes slid across her shoulders and then downward.
She glanced down and sank into the water, corralling a screen of bubbles to hide herself from view.
He crouched beside the tub, inhaling the mingled scents of jasmine and vanilla. “It’s no use. Those bubbles aren’t going to last forever.” He grinned. “And I’m willing to wait as long as necessary.”
With a rueful smile, she shifted upright. Bubbles cascaded over her body, her skin gleaming in the candlelight. He swallowed hard. Once again, it had taken her less than thirty seconds to reduce him to a mindless idiot, frothing helplessly at the mouth. So much for William the Conqueror.
“Pretty pathetic, isn’t it?” she said, with a short, awkward laugh.
“What?” Had she read his mind?
“I decide to seduce you, and then I try to wear a robe made of bubbles so you can’t see me.”
“You aren’t going to have any trouble seducing me, cara.”
“So you’re saying you’re easy?”
“Absolutely, where you’re concerned.” He traced a path along her neck and downward.
Then he bent forward, balancing on the edge of the tub, and brushed his lips against hers.
She settled back, leaning her head against the rim of the tub. “Tell me more about your talk with your grandmother.”
He had called her on the way back from the townhouse, but had given her only a quick summary of his conversation with Rose. “I’ll tell you later. Right now I’d rather focus on the mermaid in my tub. Where did you get bubble bath? Or this?” He reached for the large sea sponge sitting on the tile deck behind her head.
“The hotel spa had all sorts of goodies.”
“And the concierge dug up the candles and recommended the wine.”
“Remind me to tip him handsomely,” he said, dipping the sponge in the water.
“Whatever.” He rubbed her back and shoulders with the sponge.
She bent forward, sighing softly. “Do you think this tub is big enough for two?”
“As long as we don’t mind being extremely close together.”
“That’s the general idea.”
He leaned down and kissed her again. Then he hauled himself to his feet, filled the two wine glasses, and returned to perch on the edge of the tub. “To us.”
“To you, for getting through to your grandmother.”
“You had as much to do with that as I did.”
“Then, to us it is. We make a good team.”
They clinked glasses and sipped their wine.
“Aren’t you going to join me?” she asked, trailing a finger over his free hand where it rested on the edge of the tub.
“Absolutely.” He rose to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the bedroom, to take off my clothes.”
“Stop right there. If you think you’re going to deprive me of the chance to watch you undress ….” She twisted sideways and leaned her elbows on the edge of the tub, her chin propped on one hand. “Start unbuttoning, big guy. Don’t keep a girl waiting.”
Had he not been wearing one of his favorite sport coats, he might have clambered into the tub fully clothed and gathered her into his arms. “Just let me hang up my jacket and slacks. After that I’ll be happy to finish the job right here.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Will. Take a walk on the wild side for once, and risk getting wrinkled.”
It suddenly struck him that he must be insane. Elizabeth was naked and wet and inviting him to join her, and he was worrying about his clothes. “You’re right.” He slipped off his jacket and held it awkwardly in one hand, scanning the room for a safe resting place.
She shook her head slowing, smiling. “You can’t help yourself, can you? Why don’t you hang it over the doorknob? I think it’ll be safe there for a while.”
He took her suggestion, wincing as he imagined the jacket slipping off the knob and landing in a heap on the floor.
She waved her wine glass in his direction. “Besides, I know you. You’ve had it on for more than five minutes, so it’ll be off to the cleaners first thing in the morning. You know, they are capable of pressing out wrinkles.”
“I can’t help it. Mrs. Reynolds taught me to treat my clothing with respect.”
“Fair enough,” she said with a tiny smirk. “And I suppose that jacket is worth more than the GNP of several small island nations.”
He ignored the jibe and stepped out of his shoes. “What next?”
“Come over here and I’ll show you.”
She reached for a towel and dried her hands. With a mischievous smile, she rose up on her knees, unbuckled his belt, and attacked his zipper. He removed his trousers and looped them over the towel bar, folding them on the crease with precision.
“My own personal William Darcy striptease,” she murmured. “Along with lessons in proper care of clothing.” She fumbled for her wine glass without taking her eyes off him, nearly knocking the glass on its side.
He contributed a near mishap of his own, almost crashing to the floor while attempting to remove his socks. Chastened, and mildly stung by her merry laughter, he shuffled backward and propped himself against the counter to finish the job. Then he went to work on his shirt. Her avid gaze inspired him to remove the garment slowly, rubbing the cool polished surface of each button before slipping it through its buttonhole.
“You’re a tease,” she said.
“Isn’t that why they call it a striptease? I hope that wasn’t a complaint.”
Her smiles turned to giggles when he tried to slip off the shirt with a sexy flourish and discovered that he’d forgotten to unbutton the cuffs, trapping his hands in the sleeves. After some undignified flapping, he finally untangled himself.
She shook her head, still laughing. “You’re so cute.”
“Cute.” He planted his hands on his hips and blew air through his nose. “So much for driving you wild with my sexy disrobing act.”
“Oh, don’t worry. You’re plenty sexy.”
After some maneuvering, they managed to settle into a reclining position in the tub. Elizabeth leaned back against William’s chest, wrapped in the circle of his arms. He exhaled slowly, resting his head against the rim of the tub. “The perfect antidote for a stressful day.”
“Mmm.” She lifted his hand from her waist and toyed with his fingers. “You have the most beautiful hands.” She pressed a kiss to his palm.
His eyes drifted shut as he savored a banquet of sensual delights. Water lapped at his arms and chest, literally bathing him in fragrant warmth. A glass of wine sat within easy reach. And an exquisitely feminine body rested against his, warm and tender and his to explore at his leisure. His legs were a bit cramped in the confined space, but sometimes sacrifices were necessary in pursuit of the greater good.
Best of all, in the unlikely event that he tired of these pleasures, a plush bed with crisp cotton sheets awaited, covers turned back and pillows fluffed. Not to mention a chocolate on his pillow. He doubted Caesar had gotten one of those on his triumphant return to Rome.
“What’s so funny?” She nipped his index finger.
“I’m happy.” He drew his hand from her grasp and caressed her neck. She had piled most of her hair on top of her head, but a few tendrils escaped. He twined one lazily around his index finger.
“I talked to Jane while you were gone.”
“How are she and Charles doing?”
“Really well. She sounded so happy.”
“I’m glad.” Besides being happy for Charles, William had a selfish interest in the reconciliation. The sooner Jane and Charles were fully reunited, the sooner he could release his guilt on that score. “How was their Thanksgiving?”
“She said it was good. Mom was ecstatic to see Charles, of course.”
The words “Poor Charles” nearly burst from William’s lips. To give his mouth something less dangerous to do, he nipped her ear lobe. She squirmed against him, causing several hundred nerve endings to fire in his body. Yes, this was as close to nirvana as he ever expected to get.
“This might be a good time to tell me about your talk with your grandmother,” she said.
He would have preferred to sink into a sensual haze, but out of deference to her curiosity he described the conversation, ending with Rose’s invitation to lunch.
“Lunch sounds fine, as long as you promise that Catherine de Bourgh won’t be joining us.” Elizabeth scooped up a handful of water and drizzled it over William’s arm.
He grinned. “I said the same thing. But even if Gran wanted Catherine there—and she doesn’t—I doubt Catherine would deign to come near the townhouse after what happened yesterday.”
“Oh, please.” Elizabeth snickered. “If she saw a chance of getting back in your good graces without sacrificing her pride, she wouldn’t hesitate. She’d camp out in the garden waiting to talk to you—in a Gucci tent, of course—if she thought it would help.”
“She’d be wasting her time. After my recital next month, I’m done with her.”
“What about your pledge to fund a person to replace me?”
“I’m still going to do that, because I said I would. Besides, if I didn’t, she might take it out on you.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “She’s going to punish me no matter what. I’m sure she blames me for everything that happened.”
His stomach lurched. “I’m sorry. I wish I could do something to protect you.”
“In a few weeks the semester will be over, and I won’t have to see her anymore. I’m sure she’ll bad-mouth me to every music school dean she meets, but if I’m lucky, someday she’ll get bored and move on.” She dabbed at the bubbles floating past.
He tightened his arms around her and sighed.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said softly, stroking his hand. “Please don’t start obsessing about this.”
“I won’t.” He suspected that he had just told a lie. “But I hate watching you suffer because of my actions.”
She peeked at him over her shoulder. “Do I look like I’m suffering?”
He chuckled in spite of himself and bent forward, pressing a line of kisses to her shoulder.
“Seriously,” she said, “don’t beat yourself up. We agreed to look forward, not backward. Right?”
“Right.” But he longed for the power to turn back time.
“Anything else important from your talk with your grandmother?”
She rubbed her leg against his in a sinuous motion. All the blood drained from his head, thundering in the opposite direction. He struggled to latch onto a few functioning brain cells.
“I’m surprised she didn’t make any remarks about us living in sin here at the hotel.”
“She did,” he mumbled, leaving his mouth to fend for Itself while he caressed her neck and shoulders, his lips following behind his hands until—
“She did?” Elizabeth sat upright and twisted around to face him. A miniature tsunami slapped against the edges of the tub.
He shouldn’t have told her that, but it was too late now. “She only mentioned it because of Georgie.”
“What does Georgie have to do with this?”
“She’s at a dangerous age, and if she uses our example as an endorsement of sleeping around—”
“Sleeping around?” Elizabeth practically snarled the words.
He slammed his brain back into gear. Obviously he was going to be needing it. “Cara, wait. That’s not what I meant.”
“Is it what she meant?”
“No, not at all. But Gran doesn’t believe in sex outside of marriage, and of course she wants Georgie to adopt the same moral code. So when someone close to Georgie behaves differently, it’s a concern.”
“So what are you saying? That she doesn’t want Georgie tainted by her brother’s low-born slut of a girlfriend?”
His stomach lurched. He was in no mood for a fight, but he seemed to have no choice in the matter. “Of course that’s not what I’m saying. You’re blowing this out of proportion. Gran only meant that—”
“What about Richard? Talk about someone who sleeps around! For that matter, what about you? I’m sure it didn’t escape Georgie’s notice that sometimes her brother didn’t get home from a date until after breakfast. And I doubt she thought you’d been at up all night playing Scrabble. Or was that morally acceptable because your conquests were all rich girls?”
He fought a flash of annoyance at both her unreasonable anger and her insinuations about his past. He was tired of defending himself on that score. “As I’ve told you before, Gran maintained an official position of ignorance about where I spent my nights. That allowed her to believe that Georgie was oblivious.”
Elizabeth blew air through her lips. “Oh, please.”
“I know. Gran has been deluding herself, but it’s been a comfortable delusion. Unfortunately, by having Georgie meet us at the hotel this morning, I destroyed her deniability shield.”
She paused and took a deep breath. Relief flowed through his veins when he saw her expression soften. “Okay. I can sort of see that,” she said in a softer voice. “But it sounds like this is more about your grandmother’s feelings than about Georgie.”
“Maybe so. But Gran is entitled to her own views on the subject.”
“Of course she is, and we’re respecting that by not sleeping together under her roof. But aren’t you old enough to make your own choices?”
“Yes, and I pointed that out to her.” He raised his eyebrows. “And perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m here with you now.”
Her lips curved into a smile. “I did notice that.”
He sighed. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She shook her head and resumed her original position lying back against his chest. “It’s okay. I overreacted. I’m kind of touchy about … well, lots of things related to your grandmother.”
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told her about you. If you give her a chance, I think you’ll grow fond of her.”
“You poor thing.” She laced her fingers through his. “I bet you’re getting tired of refereeing.”
“It’s all right. You’re a pair of strong-willed women. I should have known this would take some time.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll come to an understanding—or kill each other—before long.”
He snorted. “How comforting.”
She laughed softly and burrowed against him, her head pillowed on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and yawned. For the first time he noticed the soft, irregular plop of water droplets falling lazily from the faucet. The tang of jasmine filled his nostrils. He would have to shower carefully in the morning, lest he go out in public smelling like a tropical garden.
“I wish we could stay here forever,” she said softly.
“In this city, this suite, or this bathtub?”
She shrugged. “I was mainly thinking of the tub. Though I guess we’d eventually turn into human prunes.”
He opened his eyes halfway, too lazy to pull the lids up completely. “What a frightening prospect. I’d better make sure you’re not getting all wrinkly.”
William’s meticulous search for wrinkles had left Elizabeth alternately giggling and sighing in bliss. “You have a real talent for this,” she said, the giggles winning out as he rubbed her foot with his. “Do I pass inspection?”
“You have my seal of approval,” he rumbled in her ear. “But I think I’d better double-check some spots.”
His hands gripped her ticklish waist. She flinched and tried to wrestle away from him, banging her elbow against the side of the tub. A bolt of pain shot through her arm. “Ow!”
He ceased tickling her at once and sat forward, cupping her shoulders. “I’m sorry, cara. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know,” she said through gritted teeth, rubbing her throbbing elbow. “But maybe we ought to move someplace a little less cramped.” The tub, both deeper and larger than her bathtub at home, had looked large enough for two earlier that evening as she lit candles and sprinkled bubble bath into the water. But now she felt like a sardine, though she had to admit that the average sardine can didn’t come equipped with a divinely sexy man.
The divinely sexy man in question squeezed her shoulder gently and kissed her neck. “I’d offer to kiss your elbow and make it feel better, but—”
“I know. We’d have to be contortionists to manage that.”
She rose to her feet with some help from William and dove for a towel, wrapping it tightly around herself. He followed her out, looping his towel carelessly around his neck. He retrieved one of the hotel’s plush terrycloth robes and offered it to her with a formal bow. “For you, madam.”
“Why, thank you, Jeeves.” He was the perfect incarnation of a proper English butler—at a nudist colony.
He helped her into the robe and bent down to nuzzle her neck. “Mmmm,” he whispered. “You’re so soft, and you smell delicious.”
She turned to face him, pressing a kiss to his chest just above his heart. “So do you.”
“I know.” He chuckled. “If Richard caught a whiff of me right now I’d never hear the end of it.”
“Luckily, Richard isn’t here.”
“Amen to that.” He stepped back and reached for the towel around his neck.
She took the towel from his hands. “Allow me.”
“Be my guest,” he replied with a rakish grin.
She began with his neck, patting it with the towel and following up with her lips. Next she worked her way over his shoulders and down his arms, ending by nibbling his fingers. Heat radiated from his eyes, and he pulled her against him for a long, melting kiss.
When at last he released her, she dabbed at the beads of water on his torso, admiring his Australian—and Caribbean—tan. “Would you consider going back to Australia some day?” she asked.
“If you were with me, absolutely. Of course, in my imagination we’ve already been there together.”
“Oh, really?” She moved behind him to dry his back. His shoulder blades demanded to be kissed, and she complied, grinning at the floral scent clinging to his skin. William was right—Richard would have stored up sufficient comic material for weeks to come, like a squirrel storing nuts for winter, had he smelled his cousin at this moment.
“Absolutely. You attended every concert I gave, always sitting in the front row, and we toured the city together.”
“It sounds like I had a good time.”
“You even went to the beach with me and sunbathed topless.”
“Which proves it wasn’t real.”
“I don’t know. Someday I’m going to insist on seeing that fantasy brought to life.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“Why not? I go to the beach topless all the time.” He tossed a mischievous grin over his shoulder.
Next she perched on the edge of the tub. “Give me a foot.”
He propped his foot on her knee, swaying briefly before he steadied himself. “We’re living dangerously here.”
“In other words, I’d better not do anything to challenge your balance, like tickling you?”
He raised one eyebrow. “Not unless you want to explain it to the paramedics.”
“I’ll pass.” His foot was elongated and slender, like the rest of him. She patted it dry, toying with his toes. “It’s going to take me all night to dry this much acreage,” she teased.
“I beg your pardon.” He attempted a fearsome glare, but a smile peeked out from behind his scowl.
“You know, your imperious act would be a lot more convincing if you weren’t dripping all over the floor.”
He snickered and reclaimed his foot, placing the other one on her knee.
Humming to herself, she finished with his foot and worked her way up his legs. Then she set the towel aside. “All done.”
He took her hand and drew her upright, into his arms. “And now, I think the bed is calling.”
William collected the champagne bottle and their glasses, and Elizabeth chose the two largest candles, balancing them gingerly to avoid spilling the liquid wax pooled around their wicks. Soon she and William were bundled beneath the covers, the hotel chocolates melting on their tongues.
“This is much more comfortable,” she whispered.
“Mmm.” His hand skimmed over her hip in a regular, hypnotic rhythm.
Elizabeth lost track of the passage of time as they lay together in languorous peace. But a bitter tang crept into her contentment. In less than a week she’d become addicted to his warm, solid presence in her bed and in her life. Yet soon she would be back in California, alone. She sighed.
“What’s wrong?” His deep voice held a husky note, and she wondered if he had been dozing.
“I was thinking about how much I’m going to miss you when I go back to San Francisco.”
William had decided that his relationships with Gran and Georgie might benefit from some extra time in New York. Elizabeth, in her best supportive-girlfriend mode, had endorsed his plan, but insidious second thoughts had begun to tap on her shoulder and whisper in her ear.
“I know,” he said softly, stroking her hair. “I don’t know how I’m going to let you go.”
“At least we still have tomorrow, and part of Sunday.” She smiled and touched his jaw. “And tonight.”
“Speaking of which ….” He shifted to hover over her, pushing the covers out of the way as his hands meandered over her body. “Remember that all-over massage you gave me in Barbados? It’s your turn, cara, and you’ve earned it. Relax and enjoy.”
But she couldn’t. She didn’t want to lie back passively, ceding him control of her body. She didn’t want to be admired and polished like a fragile gem. A hunger for something less decorous, something more elemental, clawed at her. She wanted to see his dark eyes burn, to feel his chest pressed against hers, to hear him utter her name in a voice rough with passion. She wanted to set them both on fire, and the hotter, the better.
She pried herself loose from his arms. Taking advantage of his momentary confusion, she pushed him onto his back. “That’s more like it,” she murmured, lowering her head to his.
Her index finger meandered across his torso. “You have the most wonderful chest,” she sighed. “I know I tell you that all the time, but it’s true.”
His stomach muscles leapt as she traced a circle around his navel. “I take it my plans for you will have to wait till later,” he murmured, a lazy smile stealing across his face.
Much later, after the flames had consumed them, they lay together in the darkness, limbs entwined. She lazily traced the contours of his rib cage, which rose and fell in the regular rhythm of sleep. “You’re mine,” she whispered, echoing his words in Barbados.