Elizabeth dropped her backpack in front of the door. The heavy bag toppled onto its side, but she was too busy fumbling for her keys to bother setting it upright. Just as she slipped the key into the lock, the door flew open.
William stepped into the hall and enveloped her in a ferocious hug. The fatigue from a long, busy day melted away.
“Sorry I’m so late,” she whispered, the words muffled against his throat.
“You’re here now.” His hands tangled in her hair.
She had forgotten how good he smelled, clean and warm and spicy, blotting out the faint odor of onions wafting down the hall from a neighbor’s early dinner. She could have stood in the dim hallway forever, simply holding him and being held. But when she raised her head to tell him so, his lips were on hers before she could speak or even breathe. She had forgotten how good he tasted, too.
When at last he lifted his head, she let out a faint laugh. “I’d forgotten what an amazing kisser you are.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m here to refresh your memory.” His mouth curved into a smug grin as it descended toward hers again. With a soft sigh, she tightened her arms around his waist and leaned against him.
“I missed you,” he whispered, brushing her hair away from her face.
“Me too. I’m so glad we’re going to be together for a while now.”
Her favorite sweet smile warmed his face. “That’s what’s been keeping me going. Over Thanksgiving I got spoiled.”
“That kind of spoiling, I’m in favor of. By the way, happy birthday.”
“It is now.” He kissed her once more, and then released her and grabbed her backpack. A frown creased his forehead and he glanced down at it. “I take it you have your anvil collection in here?”
“I brought them just in case you misbehave,” she said as she followed him into the living room. She greeted Charles and Jane, apologizing for her late arrival.
“No problem,” Charles replied. “Though I lost count of the number of false alarms when Will thought he heard you in the hall.”
William led Elizabeth to the sofa, his only reaction to Charles a soft snort. He settled down beside her, his arm securely around her shoulders. Under the guise of smoothing her skirt, she slid closer to him. Had he always been so warm and solid, his presence stimulating and comforting both at once?
“Thanks for meeting Will at the airport,” she said, smiling at Charles. “I was so annoyed when they rescheduled our rehearsal at the last minute.”
“No problem. Luckily I had a light afternoon at work so I could sneak out after lunch.”
“What did you two do?” Elizabeth asked. “Besides taking the Ferrari for a spin, I mean.”
Charles grinned. “How did you know that?”
She shot an impudent glance at William. “Because I know him. Don’t be fooled; he’s in town to visit that car, not me.”
William tightened his arm around her shoulders. “Jealous?”
“Don’t you wish.” Elizabeth pinched his arm. She saw Jane and Charles exchange amused glances.
“Well,” Charles drawled, still grinning, “you’re right. We got the Ferrari out of mothballs and took it for a drive. Then we hung out at the house for a while and had a couple of beers. Or, rather, I had a couple of beers. Mr. Wine Snob here only had one, and that was just to placate me.”
Elizabeth patted William’s knee. “Sounds like you had fun. And I’m sure the air was just fraught with boy talk.”
He kissed the top of her head. “If you’re trying to get my dander up, you might as well forget it. I’m too happy to see you to let anything upset me.”
Charles laughed. “Lizzy, I think you’d better make the most of his benevolent mood. It can’t possibly last.”
“I’ll try to think of something annoying to do or say.” She jumped to her feet. “But that’ll have to wait till later. I need to start dinner.”
“What can I do to help?” Jane asked.
“Not a thing. I’ve got it under control.” Elizabeth couldn’t help sounding smug. She had worked hard to ensure that William’s birthday party would be an overwhelming success. She couldn’t match the extravagance of his arrangements for her birthday; flying food across the country wasn’t in her budget. But she knew he would love the main dish.
She hurried to her bedroom to change clothes. His suitcase stood in the corner, oddly evocative of its owner: upright, neat, and expensive looking. A little thrill shivered up her spine. How often had she imagined him in this room, embracing her at the end of a long day? At last, it would really happen.
But there was no time for daydreaming now. She yanked open her closet door and studied her clothes. Her white shirred blouse—one of William’s favorite items from her wardrobe—gleamed in the dim light. She reached for it, along with a pair of snug jeans she knew he’d like. Her practical side rolled its eyes: she could barely make microwave popcorn without getting spots on her clothes. It was a good point; the blouse was fragile and difficult to clean.
She shook her head and removed the garments from their hangers. She could wear an apron. It would be worth it to see the look on his face.
And it was, almost immediately. His eyes widened as she passed through the living room en route to the kitchen. Less than a minute later, as she retrieved a bag of potatoes from a low shelf in the pantry, he slipped into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “That’s not fair,” he rumbled, his lips hot against her neck.
“What’s not fair?” She turned to face him.
“You know what that blouse does to me. And I can’t do anything about it till after dinner.” He pulled her tightly against him. “Unless you can think of a way to get rid of everybody now.”
“You want me to kick out your party guests?”
He slipped a hand under the stretchy hem of her blouse. “I’ll give them my credit card. There are plenty of good restaurants in San Francisco.”
She grabbed his wrist to prevent his hand from wandering into dangerous territory. “As in, ‘Here’s my card, what’s your hurry?’”
“It’s tempting, isn’t it?”
It was. She looped her arms around his neck. “I guess I blew it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I should have planned a celebration for just the two of us, like you did for my birthday.” She stepped out of his arms. “But you’re not going to be in San Francisco as often from now on, and I thought it would be fun to celebrate with our friends. Maybe I should have invited everybody over next week instead.”
“No, cara, it’s fine. I’m teasing.” He paused and glanced upward for a moment. “I can’t remember the last time I had a birthday party.”
“You didn’t have any birthday parties growing up?”
“Small celebrations with just the family. And for my eighteenth birthday, Gran hosted a reception at the Plaza, but it was primarily for her social circle. A male version of a debutante ball, you might say.” He paused. “I’ve never had a real party like this. One with friends.”
His wistful tone tugged at her heart. She traced a path along his jaw, his stubble rasping against her finger. “I’ll make sure you have birthday parties every year from now on.”
“As long as they’re not at the Plaza.” His dimples crept out of hiding for a moment.
“It’s a deal.” She stepped away from him. “Now, I need to kick you out of here. I have some important cooking to do.”
“I could stay and help.” His hands slid down her bare arms and came to rest on her waist, leaving a trail of tingling nerve endings in their wake. “I’m good in the kitchen,” he whispered in her ear, his warm breath awakening goose bumps on her neck. “And in several other rooms.”
“And modest, too.” She didn’t intend to encourage him, but without her permission her hands slid up his chest.
“I can prove it.” He began to nuzzle her neck.
“With that kind of help, I’d never get dinner on the table.”
“But we’d have fun.” He hauled her into his arms, looming over her like an amorous vulture.
She pulled out of his arms. “Go away. We can have our fun later.”
“Oh, all right,” he sighed, his shoulders heaving in a theatrical display. He captured her hand, kissing her palm in a lingering caress. “But I’m holding you to that promise.”
Elizabeth paused to admire the breadth of his shoulders as he retreated to the living room. Then she reached for the recipe Mrs. Reynolds had sent her.
“So I said, ‘Well, I’ve hummed in a few bars, if that counts.’”
William chuckled at Roger’s quip. He sat back, an ankle propped on the opposite knee, his wine glass in one hand, and surveyed the friends surrounding him, their smiling faces bathed in the mellow light of the lamps on either side of the sofa. Despite his keen interest in being alone with Elizabeth, he was enjoying his birthday party. He had been the guest of honor at many other events, but never one where denim-clad guests lounged on sofas, chatting genially with one another.
Charles, who sat beside Jane on the sofa, leaned forward to snatch a carrot from a tray of raw vegetables. No outsider would have guessed that Charles had left his father’s house only a month before with little more than his clothes and his saxophone. His freedom had come at a high price, but William hadn’t seen his friend wearing such a carefree expression since he had left Juilliard more than a decade ago.
Through surreptitious contact with his mother, Charles knew that his father’s recovery from heart surgery was proceeding slowly. He also had first-hand knowledge of Caroline, who had made a brief business trip to San Francisco a week ago. According to his description, she had developed a habit of darting constant glances around the room like a wary rabbit, as though she expected Federal agents to drop from the ceiling and handcuff her at any moment.
Jane and Charles practically glowed with the pleasure of being together again. Their happiness filled William with equal measures of pride and shame. He had been presumptuous and arrogant to interfere in Charles’s life, but he could at least congratulate himself for admitting his error and helping to set things right. And things were obviously right between them now.
The other couple in the living room intrigued him in a different way. William would never have guessed, when he invited Roger to join him for dinner with Anne de Bourgh, that the two would find common ground. But they had, to Anne’s obvious benefit. Her paper-white complexion held a hint of color, and there was something else about her, something William couldn’t identify; perhaps it was a glimmer of confidence. She looked almost pretty, and the more he looked at her, the more he felt that the word “almost” was unnecessary.
Anne glanced up and saw his eyes on her. “It was so nice of Elizabeth to invite me tonight,” she said in her whispery voice.
William silently agreed. No one would have blamed Elizabeth had she chosen to avoid Anne because of Catherine’s vicious behavior.
“We’re glad you could join us,” Jane said. “After all, you’ve been William’s friend for longer than any of us.”
Charles gave Anne a conspiratorial wink. “We could tell them all sorts of stories about Will’s early years, couldn’t we?”
“Tales of his misspent youth, eh?” Roger chuckled. “Bring it on.”
William shook his head. “You’d be bored to death.”
“He’s right,” Charles said. “He was mind-numbingly perfect. Straight A student, the favorite of every teacher, never got into trouble.” He grinned at William. “It’s a wonder we became friends.”
Jane smiled. “I think you should turn the tables on him, William. It sounds like he’s the one with the checkered past.”
“Will could definitely tell you some stories. He bailed me out of hot water on more than one occasion.”
Roger glanced at Charles. “Bailed you out, literally?”
“Not literally,” Charles said with a self-deprecating grin at William. “But once or twice it was a close call. I wasn’t used to the freedom I had in college, and I went a little wild at first.”
William nodded. “We both liked to visit jazz clubs in the evenings. But I was there for the music. He was there for ….” He arched an eyebrow at Charles.
“For the music. And the beer.” Charles glanced at the bottle in his hand. “I guess some things never change. He’d go home at a respectable hour to study and practice. But for me, the evening was just getting started.”
“And then Charles would call me the next morning in a panic, because we had an exam and he hadn’t studied.”
“And Will would drop what he was doing and help me cram. I would have flunked out the first semester if it hadn’t been for him.”
“Yikes!” This exclamation, accompanied by a loud metallic clang, issued from the kitchen.
Jane stood up, frowning. “I think I’ll go see how Lizzy’s doing. Does anybody need another drink?”
Nobody did. William’s glass was empty, but he preferred to refill it himself as an excuse to visit the kitchen. However, based on the sounds they’d just heard, he didn’t think he’d be welcome at the moment.
“Lizzy, is everything okay?” Jane stood in the kitchen doorway.
“I went to take the pot of water off the stove and it slipped from my hands. Luckily it just crashed back onto the stove. Otherwise I’d have spilled boiling water all over my legs.” Elizabeth continued to wipe up the steaming puddles on the stove top.
“That was lucky,” Jane said, frowning slightly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just annoyed that I’m so clumsy.”
Jane continued to inspect her, still frowning. “You have something on your nose.”
“Probably flour. It’s everywhere.” Elizabeth glanced at her arms, which seemed to be covered with a faint layer of dust. For all she knew, her hair might be coated too.
“How is dinner coming along?”
“I wish I knew.” Elizabeth glared at the rectangle of dough on the counter. “Everything went so well when I practiced the other night. But this time the dough is all wet and sticky. I had to add flour, and it’s still a mess. The recipe says not to add too much, but my only other option was to serve the dough as a soup.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Jane said in a soothing tone. “What about the sauce?”
Elizabeth shot a resentful glance at a pan soaking in the sink. “I got so busy trying to salvage the dough that the sauce burned while I wasn’t looking.”
“Are you going to make more?”
“Can’t. We’re out of cream, and I used all the sherry too.” Not to mention all of the mushrooms. Elizabeth was thoroughly disgusted with herself.
“I could go to the store.”
“No, it’s too late. I’ll just serve the gnocchi with butter and sage and parmesan cheese. That’s how William said his mother used to make it.”
“Then I’m sure he’ll love it.”
“I hope so.” Elizabeth sighed. “Look, I know I said I wanted to do this alone, but ….” She wrinkled her nose and looked at her sister in mute appeal.
Jane nodded, with a warm, understanding smile. “Just tell me what to do.”
“Could you make the salad? Then I can concentrate on rescuing the gnocchi, or at least trying.”
“One salad, coming right up.” Jane opened the refrigerator and began collecting the contents of the vegetable bin.
Elizabeth sighed and went back to work on her recalcitrant dough. It had sounded so easy when Mrs. Reynolds went over the instructions on the phone, and things had gone well during her practice run a few days ago. But the dough showed no inclination to bend to her will, or even to negotiate.
Time to show it who’s boss. She rolled out the dough in a rectangle and topped it with a thin veil of flour. Then she cut a section, formed it into a cylinder, and sliced off small, sticky chunks.
Next, she needed to press each one lightly with a fork to give it a curved shape. But apparently the gnocchi hadn’t gotten the memo explaining this finishing technique. After a frustrating few minutes during which she ground her teeth until her jaw was sore, she had succeeded only in clogging her fork’s tines with globs of dough. Okay, Plan B. Use my fingers instead of the fork.
Another minute passed while the dough piled up on her fingers. Of course, her nose chose this moment to develop an itch. She stepped to the sink to wash her hands, leaving a smear of dough on the faucet.
“How’s it going, Lizzy?” Jane asked, chopping a tomato with practiced ease.
“Don’t ask.” Plan C. Don’t try to shape the gnocchi. Just cut the dough into little hunks. It’ll taste the same.
Soon she had a plate full of miniature dough pillows and a pot of boiling water. She ladled a few spoonfuls of gnocchi into the water and went to work on the butter sage sauce. By the time she returned from the refrigerator with the butter, the gnocchi floated on top of the water, reminding her of pale, dead goldfish. Grimacing, she shook off the image and skimmed them out of the pot and into a bowl, where they lay in a limp, congealed mass. “Jane, I don’t think this is working.”
Jane peered into the bowl. “Hmm. Have you tasted them?”
Elizabeth did. It was like chewing a mouthful of wet flour. “Ewww. I can’t serve this.”
“Excuse me.” It was Anne, poking her head into the kitchen. “I wanted to see if I could help with dinner.”
Elizabeth’s laugh sounded harsh even to her own ears. “Not unless you know a magical spell that can transmogrify soggy gnocchi.”
“You’re making gnocchi?” Anne’s eyes lit up. “Oh, of course. William must have told you about Aunt Anna’s gnocchi. He’ll love that.”
“That was the plan,” Elizabeth said with a mournful smile. “But the gnocchi taste awful, and I ruined the sherry cream sauce. I was about to surrender and order a pizza.”
“If you want to try again, maybe I could help,” Anne said, stepping into the kitchen. “Do you have more potatoes?”
“Tons. But I think it’s hopeless.”
Anne inspected the dough, frowning thoughtfully. “The key is to make the potato mixture dry enough, and a little bit coarse.”
“You know how to make gnocchi?” Elizabeth asked, staring at Anne in disbelief.
“Aunt Anna taught me.”
“But that was ages ago. You still remember how to do it?”
“Sometimes I sneak into the kitchen on our cook’s day off, if Mother is out. I like making gnocchi because Aunt Anna and I made it just a few days before she died.”
Elizabeth seized Anne’s hand in a flour-laden grasp. “If you can save this dinner party, I’ll owe you forever. Tell me what to do.”
“Thank you again,” William said softly, stepping close behind Elizabeth as she stood at the sink, rinsing cake plates. Officially, he was helping her with the dishes. In reality, he was slowing her progress through the task, but she was enjoying his company. “For the party, and especially the gnocchi. When I tasted it, I thought Mamma must have been in the kitchen.”
“That was because of Anne, not me.”
“But it was your idea.” He kissed the top of her head.
She leaned back against him, luxuriating in the warmth of his body. “You’re welcome. It was the least I could do, after everything you did for my birthday.” Smiling, she fingered the emerald pendant around her neck; Then she returned her attention to the dishes. “But I notice you didn’t mention the presents I gave you.” She had bought him a black shirt and a tie in a deep shade of cranberry. “Are you going to wear them, or are they too much of a shock to your system?”
He released her and stepped to one side, leaning against the stove. “Of course I’ll wear them. I’m not that conservative.”
“Yeah, well, the shirt will be easy to find in your closet, amid that sea of plain white ones.”
“Hey, you two.” Charles entered the kitchen, juggling several empty beer bottles. “Great party.”
“I think everybody had fun,” Elizabeth said. “I wish Char could have been here.”
Jane squeezed into the kitchen, her hands full of coffee cups. “She was sorry to miss it. I hope everything went well for her today.” Charlotte was in Los Angeles, interviewing for a faculty position at UCLA.
Elizabeth wove her way around William and retrieved the salad bowl from the edge of the counter. She saw Charles raise his eyebrows at Jane, who nodded and smiled. “Lizzy, If you don’t need any more help, Charles and I are going over to the house.”
This announcement didn’t surprise Elizabeth until she glanced into the dining room and saw Jane’s overnight bag beside the table. She dried her hands and, with a significant look, led Jane out of the kitchen and down the hall. “You know you don’t have to leave, right?”
“But wouldn’t you and William like to be alone tonight?”
Elizabeth couldn’t deny it. The Fitzwilliams were arriving in San Francisco tomorrow and would be occupying the penthouse for the weekend. Although Eleanor had invited William to stay with them, and had extended the invitation to include Elizabeth, the idea seemed like a recipe for awkwardness. Unfortunately, the situation at the condo was no better. Sharing a passionate reunion with William, knowing Jane was across the hall and the walls were thin … Elizabeth had tried not to think about it. “That’s sweet of you. Are you sure it won’t be awkward to stay at the house with Charles?”
“You see, Lizzy ….” Jane paused and blushed. “Last night, Charles and I went to the house after dinner, just to talk for a while. One thing led to another, and we ….”
“Oh, my gosh!” Elizabeth grasped Jane’s forearms. “Why didn’t you say something when you got home last night?”
“I needed time to process everything. Besides, it was late, and I had an early deposition this morning. That’s why I didn’t spend the night there. But I have a slow day tomorrow, so tonight I can stay with him.”
Elizabeth flung her arms around Jane. “I’m so happy for you! I’ve had my fingers crossed that things were going to work out.”
Jane blushed again, smiling. “We’ve only been seeing each other for a month this time, but the way he’s handled everything—I’m so proud of him. He’s still Charles, but he’s so much stronger now.”
Elizabeth had expected Charles to struggle with his newfound poverty. Not that he was penniless; he had a good job at the symphony. But it couldn’t be easy for a formerly wealthy man to adjust to packing his lunches and driving a used car. He had surprised them all, settling into his new life with apparent ease. “It must be just like old times, being in the house together.”
“It is.” Jane sighed. “Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The house will be gone in a little over a month. We can’t afford to get any more attached to it.”
“I know,” Elizabeth said, patting Jane’s arm. Charles had done well selling the house, with two bidders competing and a final bid well above his asking price, but the sale was a mixed blessing.
“I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for myself. It’s only a house. I’m so lucky to have Charles back in my life; that’s what matters most.”
“We’re both lucky.”
The sisters hugged again. “Have a wonderful evening with William,” Jane said, as they made their way back to the kitchen.
William lounged on Elizabeth’s bed, his arms folded across his bare chest. He shivered as a cool draft tiptoed through the leaky window casement and across his skin, raising a legion of goose bumps. He glanced at the sheet covering his lap, its design of pale blue snowflakes ironically appropriate. Lunging forward, he grabbed the blue velour blanket at the foot of the bed and dragged it to his waist. It didn’t help with his chilly arms and shoulders, but he couldn’t allow her to find him cowering under the covers in an unmanly fashion.
“The cold draft can’t be good for you either,” he muttered, eyeing the orchids blooming on the dresser. The dendrobium seemed to nod at him, like the old friend it was. But one could sit in bed staring at orchids, even beautiful ones, for only so long, and he was well past the cutoff point. “Lizzy?” When she didn’t respond, he raised his voice. “Lizzy, what’s taking so long?”
Immediately after Jane and Charles’s departure, he had begun a determined campaign to peel Elizabeth’s clothes off her body as quickly as possible. But she had eluded him, escaping down the hall with the promise of another birthday gift in return for his patience, patience that had dwindled to a few random specks in a dusty corner of his mind. He knew precisely what he wanted for his birthday, and it didn’t come from a store.
Then he saw her in the doorway, and he froze. Every hair on the back of his neck stood in a salute to a vision extracted from his fantasies.
“Happy birthday.” She stood in the doorway in a low-cut black nightgown that covered her only to mid-thigh. Her hair tumbled around her face and down her back, exactly as he liked it. His eyes flicked up and down, unable to choose between her legs and the deep cleavage exposed by the plunging neckline.
“Come here,” he croaked, his mouth suddenly parched.
She crossed the room, the awkwardness in her smile poignant, and knelt beside him on the bed. “Hi,” she whispered, running a finger across his chest. Goosebumps dotted his flesh again, but not from the cold.
“So is this my other birthday present?” he murmured, sliding a hand over the gown. “If it is, I approve.” He brushed her hair behind her shoulder and leaned forward to kiss her neck. The seductive fragrance of jasmine filled his nostrils.
“I wasn’t sure about it, but Jane and Char talked me into it.” She smoothed his hair off his forehead and then kissed him there. “Are you having a good birthday?”
“The best ever. With one exception.”
“You forced me to sing for you on your birthday, but you haven’t returned the favor.”
“I have so,” she retorted. “I sang for you when I brought out the cake.”
“Big deal. Everyone sang for me then. I want a private performance.”
A mischievous smile crept onto her face, and she began to sing in an exaggerated breathy tone. “Happy birthday to you.” She paused to nuzzle his ear. “Happy birthday to you.” She nipped his nose. “Happy birthday, Mr. Darcy.” She kissed his eyelids. “Happy birthday to you.” Then she drew back. “How was that?”
“Perfect.” He leaned over to kiss her. At first they teased each other, brushing their lips together, nibbling, advancing only to retreat at once. But soon the kiss deepened and warmed, becoming unexpectedly profound.
She drew back and opened the nightstand, withdrawing a small jeweler’s box. Her smile was almost shy as she extended it to him. “Here’s one more present.”
He opened the box to reveal an elegant pair of cufflinks trimmed in onyx and mother of pearl. “Thank you,” he said softly. They were beautiful, and a perfect reflection of his taste.
“The black and white reminded me of a piano. I thought you could wear them when you perform.” She stroked his cheek. “That way, even if I can’t be there in person, I’ll still be with you.”
She kissed him then, a kiss he knew would haunt him when they were apart, slow and thorough and bursting with passionate yearning. Her hand smoothed his cheek, and he could feel the love streaming from her fingers. A deep rumbling sigh vibrated in his chest as he pulled her closer, intensifying the kiss.
They sank down together to lie on the bed, their mouths still moving together, passion enveloping them in a cloud of sensation. She tasted so sweet, so tantalizing, her lips teasing his with joyful abandon. He had one final coherent thought: This is the best birthday I’ve ever had.