Elizabeth opened her eyes and immediately shut them again, temporarily blinded by a ray of sunshine piercing the narrow gap between the living room drapes. She shifted sideways and opened her eyes again, gazing in bleary-eyed contemplation of the tiny dust particles floating in the slender beam of light that now warmed her shoulder. It was Sunday morning—early morning, from the sharp angle of the sun—and she had fallen asleep on the sofa again last night.
She pulled herself upright, yawning. A small bouquet of daisies and carnations lay wilting on the coffee table, a gift from the cast of South Pacific; they had called her to the stage last night during the final curtain call to thank her for her help.
It was strange that Jane hadn’t awakened her when she arrived home. Unless she hadn’t arrived home.
Suddenly wide awake, Elizabeth jumped to her feet and flew down the hall. Jane’s bedroom door sat open, the bed in pristine condition. This discovery wasn’t necessarily significant; Jane always made her bed immediately after vacating it, and she might have slipped out for an early morning run. However, Elizabeth preferred to believe that Jane was sharing breakfast in bed with Charles.
It couldn’t be a coincidence that he had arrived in San Francisco so soon after William’s trip to Los Angeles. Was Charles here with William’s blessing? With his knowledge? In defiance of his continued discouragement? She didn’t know, but she couldn’t seem to stop turning the question over in her mind.
She stretched her arms over her head, yawning, and wandered to the living room window. Her thought of Buena Vista Park, the wooded oasis across the street, and she could feel its shade-dappled paths beckoning. Nodding to herself, she folded the afghan and headed for her bedroom to get ready for a long walk.
Once in the park, Elizabeth couldn’t seem to leave. After days of gray drizzle, the crystal skies and sunshine were a gift from the heavens. She strolled along the woodland paths, twigs snapping beneath her feet, and inhaled the crisp scent of fall along with the tang of eucalyptus. Her progress was impeded by occasional stops to savor the commanding views for which the park had been named, her thoughts swirling like a leaf carried on the morning breeze.
If he were here, what would I ask him? What would I say? The hole in her heart was as ragged and painful as ever, yet she had begun to wonder how much of the damage had been caused by his actions, and how much was simply due to his absence.
Yet if he appeared at that moment, nothing would have changed. She couldn’t cede control of her life to another, not even the man she loved with a passion she had never thought possible. And only a foolish woman opened her heart to a man with the idea of molding him according to her needs. The answer, if there was one, would demand compromise, a sport at which neither of them excelled.
A family walking three barking dogs, all straining at their leashes, shattered the serenity of the park. Sighing, she navigated the path back down the hill, hoping to find a message from Jane, if not Jane herself, waiting at home.
But she found the apartment as silent and empty as she had left it. Jane and Charles had planned a drive yesterday to Napa Valley, California’s wine country. Perhaps they had spent the night at a bed and breakfast with lace curtains and a giant four-poster bed covered by a sumptuous down comforter. Elizabeth had often imagined visiting such a place—with him, of course, nestled close in their warm hollow beneath the covers, the firelight turning his skin a deep burnished gold. She bit her lip and brushed a tear from the corner of her eye before it dampened her cheek.
But she didn’t have time to wallow in memories. She had classes to teach tomorrow that required preparation, and she hadn’t done her vocal exercises in days. And she was hungry. Perhaps Chloe or another of their neighbors would be in the mood for a quick brunch at Squat & Gobble.
She showered quickly, emerging from the bathroom with one towel wrapped around her body and another turban-style around her head.
“Lizzy!” It was Charles BIngley, his face red, but his perennial smile in place.
Aside from her involuntary gasp, she hid her embarrassment well, grateful that her skin was already flushed from the heat of the shower. “Hi, Charles,” she said cheerfully, gripping her towel with a heightened sense of urgency. “Excuse me.” She made her way to the privacy of her room as fast as she could without breaking into a gallop. She had barely shut the door when she heard a knock, and Jane entered.
“Lizzy, I’m so sorry! When we got here I didn’t hear you in the bathroom, so I thought you were out.”
“No harm done,” Elizabeth answered. “How are you this morning?”
Joy shimmered in Jane’s eyes. “I’m wonderful,” she said softly, grasping Elizabeth’s hand.
Elizabeth had to restrain herself from jumping up and down with excitement. “Then you’re back together?”
“We’re going to take things one step at a time, but, yes, I think so.”
Elizabeth let out a little shriek and threw one arm around Jane, her other hand still clutching the towel. “That’s wonderful!” She stepped away, absorbing the glow of contentment on her sister’s face. “Of course,” she teased, “when you say ‘taking things one step at a time,’ you mean other than spending last night together.”
“We didn’t,” Jane answered quickly, a hint of embarrassment in her smile. “At least, not the way you’re thinking. We kept talking and talking, and before we knew it we’d talked all night.”
“That was probably just what you needed.” Elizabeth stifled a rueful grin as Jane brushed her hair back from her face, the strands floating perfectly into place like soft filaments of spun gold. Even a sleepless night couldn’t mar Jane’s perpetually flawless appearance.
“We got some important things out in the open. I think we understand each other better now.”
“I can’t wait to hear all about it. But we can do that later. It looks like you two are planning to go out.”
“We are, for brunch at Top of the Mark. Come with us.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be alone? Isn’t he going home later today?” Elizabeth unwound the towel on top of her head, and her mass of tangled hair dropped to her shoulders.
“No, he’s staying till tomorrow morning. But the best part is, next Friday he’s coming back to stay.”
“He’s moving back? You’re kidding!” This was better news than Elizabeth had dared to imagine. “Then he’s not going to ask you to reconsider moving to LA?”
Jane beamed at her. “Dry your hair and get dressed as fast as you can. We have a lot to tell you.”
Rather than try to tell the story in the car, the threesome made cheerful small talk on the way to Top of the Mark. When at last they were seated, each with a plate filled from the buffet, Charles offered Elizabeth a summary of his personal epiphany and its consequences, leaving her astonished by the sudden turnaround in his life.
“You just walked away from all of it?” she asked, her wide-eyed gazed glued on him.
He nodded, dragging his fork through his scrambled eggs. “I did it almost a week ago, but I’m not sure if it’s sunk in yet. I think that’ll happen when I have to start paying rent and grocery bills.”
“Well, I think it took a lot of guts,” Elizabeth said, darting an approving glance at Jane, who was listening intently while sampling her French toast.
“It’s about time, don’t you think?” Charles said with a self-deprecating shrug. “I just hope it isn’t too late for me to grow up.”
“It’s not,” Jane said, and they smiled at each other, sharing some private joke.
Elizabeth was surprised to find herself close to tears as she watched them. The room, despite its size, threatened to close in on her, and her heart pounded. She set down her fork and shut her eyes, drawing a deep breath. When she regained control she opened her eyes, grateful that Jane and Charles had been too absorbed in each other to notice. “Do you know what sort of job you want?” Elizabeth asked.
“Someday I’d like to own a jazz club, but that’s far in the future,” Charles said. “For now it’s more a question of who would want to hire me. Outside of Father’s company I have no track record, and I won’t be getting a recommendation from him.”
“But you must have business contacts who could help you,” Elizabeth said.
“Maybe, if I wanted to stay in the medical equipment field.” Charles paused to eat a large forkful of his eggs. “But I have a job interview tomorrow morning before I head home, something Will dug up for me.”
Elizabeth’s heart thumped. “Oh?” She hid her expression by taking a long, slow sip from her coffee cup.
“Yeah. He called the executive director of the San Francisco Symphony. Turns out they need a Director of Public Relations. Will put in a good word for me, and they want to talk to me.”
“That makes sense,” Elizabeth said, glancing at Jane, who nodded in return. “You can do the sort of work you did in LA, but for a musical organization.”
“Brilliant, isn’t it?” Charles looked directly into Elizabeth’s eyes, his message obvious. “And it was Will’s idea. He’s been absolutely incredible through this whole thing.”
Elizabeth licked her lips and sighed. “That’s William. He’s generous to a fault.”
Charles squared his shoulders, looking unusually determined, and she steeled herself for the lecture that appeared to be on its way. “Look, Lizzy—” He broke off abruptly, and she noted a warning glance from Jane directed his way. He shook his head and picked up a croissant. “Never mind.”
“Is there anything new in Caroline’s situation?” Elizabeth asked.
Charles grimaced. “It’s about the same. We’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
A few minutes later Jane saw a colleague across the restaurant and excused herself to say hello. As soon as she was gone, Charles spoke. “Lizzy, there’s something we need to talk about. Jane didn’t want me to do this, but I owe it to Will for everything he’s done for me.”
So she hadn’t escaped his lecture after all. She set down her fork and waited, her unsmiling expression as noncommittal as she could manage.
“Will didn’t tell me much about what happened between the two of you,” he began. “He said it was partly because of his advice to me about Jane, and that something else was involved too. Jane told me what he did about your job, so I guess that was the other part. And I can see why you’d be angry.”
Elizabeth barely nodded.
“I’m the last person who should tell anybody what to do, but I hope you’ll give Will a second chance. He’s crazy about you. And if you’re holding out for someone better, no such animal exists. Will is the best there is.”
Elizabeth lifted her chin, instantly defensive. “In spite of the damage he did to you and Jane?”
“Yeah, he screwed up there, and he and I have had words about that. But I screwed up a lot worse than he did. And I’ve forgiven him; don’t you think you could do the same?”
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Elizabeth said, surprised to find that she meant it. “But it’s more complicated than that.”
“Okay. I’ll butt out.” Charles paused for a moment and then continued with a rueful shrug. “On second thought, I’ll butt out after I’ve said this. Lizzy, whoever coined the phrase about a man with a heart of gold was describing Will. He makes mistakes, and he can be difficult sometimes, but I’ve never seen him do anything that wasn’t motivated by the best of intentions. And that includes the whole business with Jane. He was trying to protect me.”
“Who died and made him your keeper?”
Charles gave her a wry grin. “I more or less asked him the same thing, but to be honest, he’s protected me from myself more than once. There was a time when I needed someone with common sense looking out for me. I guess I still do. He’s had better ideas about my job prospects than I have.”
“He’s a sensible man, most of the time.”
“He did everything he could to make things right with me, and he deserves credit for that. He confessed his mistake and apologized. He supported my decision to leave Father’s company. And now he’s trying to help me find a job. Oh, and he gave me a place to stay this weekend.”
“The penthouse?” Elizabeth asked. Jane hadn’t mentioned that detail.
“Right.” Charles scowled and smacked his fist lightly on the table, causing the coffee cups to rattle in their saucers. “Damn! That reminds me. There’s a cookie tin in the kitchen with your name on it.”
“Probably from Mrs. Reynolds.” William hadn’t mentioned anything about it, but the housekeeper had sent Elizabeth tins of homemade cookies before.
“We’re right across the street. We can run over there and get it when we’re done here.”
“Sorry I was gone so long,” Jane said as Charles popped to his feet to pull back her chair. “I got lured into shop talk, and that’s always dangerous.” She smiled at Elizabeth. “What did you two talk about?”
Elizabeth winked at Charles. “Oh, nothing in particular.”
Late that night, Elizabeth again sat alone in the living room, this time with the latest Death on Demand mystery novel on her lap. Diana Krall crooned softly on the CD player, and a cup of herbal tea sat at Elizabeth’s elbow. Her legs were covered by an afghan, the rest of her body dwarfed by an oversized San Francisco 49ers football jersey with ink stains on the sleeves.
She reached for a chocolate chip cookie and munched it as she read. The package addressed to her had indeed been a tin of homemade cookies from Mrs. Reynolds, wrapped sufficiently to stay fresh during their week spent on the penthouse’s kitchen counter.
Elizabeth had tried every excuse she could concoct to stay downstairs making small talk with the doorman while Jane and Charles made the trek up to the penthouse to retrieve the package. But a cheerfully oblivious Charles had firmly escorted the sisters to the elevator while prattling about William’s generosity in providing him temporary living quarters, his remarks accompanied by a host of pointed but good-natured looks in Elizabeth’s direction.
Trapped into going upstairs, she had resolved to avoid the rooms most haunted by memories. But she soon realized that to do that, she’d have to shut herself in the hall closet—and even then, only if she first tossed William’s raincoat out onto the cold marble floor in the foyer.
She swallowed the last bite of her cookie, marked her place in her book, and idly lifted a note from the coffee table.
These cookies are a small token of gratitude for the wonderful care you’ve been taking of William. He seems to have fully recovered his health, and I’ve never seen him so happy. I know you’re the reason for both of those things.
I’m looking forward to your visit at Thanksgiving.
She heaved a shaky sigh, resisting the urge to scuttle back into her protective shell and triple-lock the door. She wondered what Mrs. Reynolds would say to her now. First she had helped him to heal his heart, and then she had broken it.
Her ego jumped to its feet in heated protest. His actions, not hers, had precipitated the crisis and caused the heartache; she had simply responded in the only way she could.
The judgmental voice in her head joined the fray. Oh? Do you honestly believe there was nothing else you could have done?
Elizabeth shoved that question aside and set the note on the coffee table. She heard the sound of a key in the lock, followed by the sight of Jane coming through the door. Even from across the room, the happiness radiating from her eyes lit up the room.
“I didn’t think you’d be home till tomorrow,” Elizabeth said. “I thought for sure Charles would convince you to spend the night.”
Jane approached her, the pink in her cheeks either a blush or a sign of the chilly temperatures outside. “It’s too soon for that. We’re going to date for a while and give Charles time to get settled in his new life.”
“I bet you’re the one who wants the time, not Charles, right?” Elizabeth lifted her mug of tea from the end table and sipped, finding it lukewarm. She grimaced and set it down.
Jane smiled and nodded, seating herself on the sofa. “He’d be perfectly happy to elope to Reno in the morning if I agreed. He can be impetuous, too impetuous sometimes, but his enthusiasm is one of the things I love most about him.”
“If you want to move back into the house with him and sell this place, don’t worry about me. I can find somewhere else to live.”
“We’re not ready to move in together,” Jane said, accepting a cookie from the tin Elizabeth extended to her. “Besides, Charles is going to sell the house.”
“It turns out there’s a mortgage that he didn’t tell me about when we bought the place, and he can’t afford the payments, not even if I help.”
Elizabeth raised one eyebrow. “He borrowed money for the house and didn’t tell you? And that’s okay with you, that he lied to you?”
“Of course not,” Jane said softly. “But he explained why he did it, and he’s promised not to hide things from me anymore.”
“And just like that you believe him?” This was hitting too close to home for Elizabeth’s comfort.
Jane’s smile was sympathetic. “I believe that he means it, and that he’ll do his best. But it may be hard for him at first. He got used to hiding things from his father years ago.”
“I can see why,” Elizabeth said, plucking absently at a loose fiber on the afghan. “It must have been a miserable way to grow up, getting stomped on by that horrible man.”
“I know.” Jane sighed and reached for another cookie. “So I’ll just do the best I can to help him. I’ll reassure him, encourage him, and ask a lot more questions than usual for a while, just in case he backslides,” she finished, with an impish smile.
Elizabeth smiled. “I like that. Cautious optimism with micro-management as a backup strategy.” She paused, and then asked, in as casual a tone as she could manage, “Has he said anything more about William?”
“Just how great he’s been about everything, and he told you that at brunch.”
Elizabeth felt an unpleasant trembling sensation in the pit of her stomach. She snatched a cookie from the tin and nibbled around its edges, staring at the afghan in her lap.
“I should get to bed,” Jane said, rising to her feet. “I’m meeting Charles for an early breakfast before he leaves, and I’ve got a full day at the office.”
“Wait.” The word shot out of Elizabeth’s mouth. “I—I mean, please wait, just for a minute.”
Jane perched on the sofa arm. “Of course,” she said gently. “What is it?”
The CD stopped playing, leaving the room silent except for muffled laughter coming from a neighboring apartment. “The day William came here, and you talked to him.”
“You want to hear about it?” Jane’s eyes were warm with sympathy.
Elizabeth nodded. “Please.”
“He showed up right around lunchtime,” Jane began, reclaiming her seat beside Elizabeth on the sofa. “He looked tired; I don’t think he’d gotten much sleep. I found out that he had barely eaten all weekend, so I fixed him some lunch.”
“I’m glad you took care of him. He forgets to eat sometimes, when he has something on his mind.” Elizabeth blinked hard, her eyes moist. “Did he come just to return my things?”
“That’s what he said, but I think he also needed someone to talk to. He loves you so much, Lizzy, and he feels terrible about what happened. He was bewildered and hurt that you wouldn’t even try to work it out.”
“That’s not fair,” Elizabeth replied, yanking the afghan up over her shoulders. “He doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He thinks I don’t understand his reasons, and that if he explains, all will be forgiven.”
“You are two of a kind,” Jane said mildly. “You’re both absolutely sure that you’re right.”
Elizabeth gritted her teeth, feeling a rare wave of annoyance aimed at Jane. “You don’t know everything he did, because I haven’t told you. If you knew—”
“That he discouraged Charles from reconciling with me?”
“Charles told you that?” Elizabeth gaped at Jane, who sat beside her in utter serenity.
“He made a few comments designed to see if you’d told me or not, and that confirmed my suspicions. And I’ve known all along that William doesn’t like me. He’s polite, of course, but cool. And you said he had reservations about our family. So I can see why he wanted someone different for his friend.”
“But William thought you wanted Charles’s money, and that’s absurd.”
“It was possible, wasn’t it?” Jane lifted one shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Charles has been pursued for his money before. Plus, there’s the stuff that William overheard Mom saying. You and I know that’s just the way she talks, but William doesn’t.”
Elizabeth had listened to enough of Jane’s excuses for William. “Well, he’s had plenty of chances to get to know you since then, but all he wanted was to confirm his stupid prejudices. Every time I think of all the pain you suffered ….” She shook her head, her hands convulsively gripping the afghan. “I can never forgive him for that.”
“I wish you would,” Jane said in a measured tone, “because I have. Whatever William said and did, even if he misjudged things, he only wanted the best for Charles. And have you considered the timing of Charles’s visit here, so soon after William was in Los Angeles?”
Elizabeth nodded reluctantly.
“Something you said to William during your argument must have changed his mind about me. I think that’s the main reason he went to LA, to make things right with Charles.”
Elizabeth sighed. Jane was right on this point.
Jane continued, quietly but with calm authority. “I’ve forgiven William, and so has Charles. And aren’t we the two people directly involved in what happened?”
Elizabeth stared at her fingernails, frowning.
“Okay, I’ll stop nagging now. You know how I feel about it. But whatever you decide, I’m in your corner.”
Elizabeth leaned her head on Jane’s shoulder. “Thank heaven, or I’d be lost.”
After a few moments of silent contemplation, Jane asked, “Do you want to hear more about his visit, or is that enough for tonight?”
“I think I can handle the rest,” Elizabeth said, sitting up straight.
“He saw the photos, from the night of your birthday dinner. In fact, he took one with him.”
“I’d forgotten about those.” It was a lie. Elizabeth’s copies of the pictures were safely buried in her bottom nightstand drawer, sharing the space with an emerald pendant and a small green shoot adorned with crumbling, faded purple orchid blossoms.
“He loved the photo where you’re smiling at each other. He said, ‘That’s my Lizzy.’ In fact, he was trying not to cry.”
Elizabeth brushed a tear from the corner of her eye. She was rapidly changing her mind about her capacity to hear anything more.
“And I almost forgot. When he was in New York, he went to see Michael.”
“He did what?” Elizabeth sat forward, her eyes huge.
“I think it’s been eating away at him, knowing what Michael did to you. He said he went there on a quixotic impulse, partly to avenge you and partly to somehow make New York a safe place for you.”
“I can’t believe he did that.” Elizabeth wasn’t sure if she wanted to smack William or fling her arms around him. It was yet another example of his presumption that he could arrange other people’s lives or even rewrite history. Still, she couldn’t help but be touched by the depths of his protective instinct. “What happened?”
“He went the place where Michael was tending bar, but of course there was nothing he could do. So he went away even more frustrated than before. Honestly, Lizzy, he wants so much to make things right.”
“Nothing he says can change what he did, but when he comes back from Australia, I’ll talk to him.”
“Good.” Jane leaned over and hugged Elizabeth lightly. “And now I think I’ll be on my way to bed—that is, if you’re okay.”
Elizabeth forced a smile onto her face. “I’m fine. I’m going to read for a little longer.”
Jane rose to her feet, yawning. “Don’t stay up too late.” Just before she turned the corner to head down the hallway, Jane turned back. “And, Lizzy?”
“Long talks. I highly recommend them. You’d be surprised how many things two people can work out in a long talk if they love each other.”
Jane’s bedroom door closed with a soft click, and Elizabeth was alone again in the shadowy living room. She arranged the afghan around her legs and reached for Mrs. Reynolds’s note, poring over it in the deep quiet of the night.