Sunday, early afternoon (Barbados and New York)
“Lizzy, would you like some more tea?”
“Um, oh—yes, please.”
“You couldn’t be terrible company if you tried,” Madeline said firmly. “You’re just a little distracted, and that’s understandable. He’ll call soon. I’m sure of it.”
Elizabeth wasn’t comforted by her aunt’s assertion. Madeline Gardiner’s skill as a doctor was unquestioned and she possessed a surprising array of knowledge about Bajan history, geography, and culture, but her crystal ball was flawed. Her prediction—that William would call on Saturday—had proved untrue, and as the hours passed on Sunday without any word from him, Elizabeth found herself increasingly unable to think of anything or anyone else.
They had spent Saturday touring the beaches and plantation houses of the island’s southern parishes, returning to the hotel just in time to clean up for dinner. Elizabeth, pleading a headache, had sent the Gardiners off to the restaurant without her and had dined alone on her terrace overlooking the garden and the placid sea. A paradise like this was built for couples and the evenings were particularly romantic, but not with one’s niece tagging along. If her plan had also kept her within earshot of the telephone, that was merely a lucky coincidence, or so she told herself.
Unfortunately, an evening spent alone was an evening with little to distract her from thoughts of William. She had left her room briefly after dinner for a walk on the beach, hoping to escape the reflections of him that seemed to haunt every corner of her room, but her thoughts had tagged along like a persistent shadow. Immediately on her arrival at the beach, she had noticed a tall figure standing alone at the water’s edge, staring out to sea. The darkness that obscured his face had silhouetted a broad-shouldered frame with hair ruffled by the breeze. Her heart had at first leapt at the sight, but then he had begun to walk toward her without any hint of William’s graceful stride. She had left the beach to return to her terrace, where at least her eyes and her heart wouldn’t play tricks on her.
Her aunt and uncle had returned from dinner to find her still on the terrace, William’s music pouring into her ears through her headphones. Elizabeth knew she ought to stop listening to his recordings, but what had started as a casual occupation on Wednesday had by Saturday evening become an obsession. She had even listened, for the first time since their argument, to the Rachmaninoff piano concerto. The Brahms Intermezzo, which she thought of as William’s gift to her, was absent from the collection of CDs she had brought, and perhaps that was just as well. She had shed more than a few tears during the Rachmaninoff, but the Brahms was even closer to her heart.
“I think my favorite thing about the house was that it had four fireplaces,” Elizabeth said with a bright smile, resolving to be a better companion for the rest of the day. “I wonder if the architect had ever visited a tropical island?”
“Apparently not,” Madeline replied, grinning. “Nothing like a roaring fire around every turn after a day out in the hot sun. But I suppose the original owner asked for a British-style house, and that’s what he got.”
Elizabeth nodded, raising her teacup. “Of course here we are in that same climate drinking hot tea, so maybe we’re not wrapped too tightly ourselves.”
“Good point, but at a British house, what else would we drink?” Madeline set down her cup. “Are you ready to move on? Next, I want to see the signal station. The view of the coastline from there is supposed to be spectacular. And maybe we’ll find a phone we can use somewhere along the way.”
Elizabeth flashed an apologetic glance at her aunt. “It probably seems like I’m more interested in finding phones than in anything else.”
“I’m sure the hotel’s grateful that you can’t wear out voicemail through constant use,” Madeline teased.
As Elizabeth accompanied her aunt to the parking lot, she resolved to stop looking for phones around every corner, to banish her constant thoughts of him, and above all to curtail her string of false William Darcy sightings. When they returned to the hotel she would call his cell phone again, and until then she would put him out of her mind.
The sun was hotter here than in California, larger and somehow more aggressive, casting sharply defined shadows that grew longer as the afternoon progressed. Its rays warmed her arms and shoulders, but the damp ocean breeze cooled them. She had stashed her sandals in her tote bag, and the talcum-powder sand squished between her toes with each step. A sand crab, wary of her approach, skittered into a large hole and vanished from view.
She didn’t know why he hadn’t called, but she didn’t plan to wait much longer. It had seemed safer to wait until they talked before flying to New York, if only to ensure that he was there, but she was running out of patience. She would call him again that evening, and unless she reached him by the end of the day, she would simply board a plane to New York tomorrow morning and hope for the best.
Her face flushed with sudden shame. Her patience was exhausted after three days of waiting; how much worse must the past two weeks have been for him?
She turned back to watch the surfers, but her heart had begun to rap out a frantic message. After a few seconds of resistance her eyes slid back to the jogger. Her breath caught in her chest and she froze, her eyes locked on what had to be a mirage. As the distance closed between them she saw his height, his dark hair, and his heartbreakingly familiar stride, full of power and grace that even the difficult footing of the powdery sand couldn’t diminish. It seemed impossible—it was impossible—yet here he was.
She could tell the instant he saw her, because he stumbled and stopped running. He stood still and stared at her for what seemed like several minutes but was probably only a few seconds. Then he strode toward her at a deliberate pace. She approached him on legs that felt like rubber, and in a remote part of her brain she wondered why her hands couldn’t keep still.
They came to a stop facing each other. His mouth opened and then closed again. He licked his lips. “Elizabeth,” he croaked, his chest rising and falling rapidly.
“Hello, William.” A dizzy tangle of thoughts whirled through her brain, making it difficult to speak.
He dragged a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. “I … ah … it’s good to see you.” He seemed unsure what to do with his hands. First he rubbed one over his jaw, where a slight shadow of stubble was forming. His hand fell from there to his hip, evidently trying to shove itself into a nonexistent pocket. Finally, after a downward grimace, he crossed his arms awkwardly over his bare chest and stared at his shoes.
She wanted to defuse their mutual discomfort, but her usually quick tongue seemed glued to the roof of her mouth. “I didn’t know you were coming down here,” she said at last with a weak smile. She removed her sunglasses, parking them on top of her head.
He took off his sunglasses in response, clutching them in one hand and folding his arms across his chest again. “Yes, well, I … it wasn’t in the original plan.”
Elizabeth wouldn’t have been surprised to see affection, fear, or even anger on his face. But aside from a small frown his expression was bland, his eyes dark and wary, and judging from his fidgety body language he couldn’t wait to escape. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted her to know he was on the island. Perhaps she’d waited too long to call and he’d stopped loving her.
Perhaps it was time to stop the pointless speculation.
A more likely explanation was that he hadn’t gotten her messages and wasn’t sure where they stood. Fortunately, she could easily test this theory. “I’m here with my aunt and uncle,” she said in a deliberately casual tone. “They came for Uncle Edward’s medical conference.”
“I know,” he said softly.
“Then you got my messages?”
He nodded. “Yesterday.”
Her heat sank. The Darcys must have relocated their Thanksgiving celebration to Barbados, with William flying directly from Sydney to meet them. That meant he had been here last night, perhaps gazing up at the same moonlit sky she had studied from her terrace while praying for the phone to ring. He’d gotten her messages, and had known she was on the island, just a few miles away, but he hadn’t called.
The judgmental voice in her head piped up. And whose fault is that? You did the same thing to him. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk to you.
With this painful reality gnawing at her, she couldn’t bear to look into his remote, hooded eyes any longer. Her gaze dropped below his neck, which served only to increase her discomfort. He was clad in nothing but running shoes and a pair of loose-fitting black swim trunks; his chest gleamed with sweat and his skin was lightly tanned. Her hand threatened to reach out on its own initiative to explore the contours that had pillowed her head just a few weeks before. Swallowing, she forced her gaze up to his face, reeling under the impact of the effortless virility he radiated.
As their eyes met again he donned a noncommittal expression, but not before she saw a flash of unmistakable longing in his eyes. He was swathed in his protective armor, but a vulnerable heart beat beneath it, a heart that still—she hoped—belonged to her.
Her first instinct was to step forward and enfold him in her arms, to comfort him like a child. But she doubted he would welcome an intimate gesture with his defenses still in place. Instead she sought to relax him with some light conversation while also satisfying her curiosity. “Did your family decide to spend Thanksgiving at Pemberley?”
He shook his head. “I’m here by myself.”
She raised her eyebrows; it seemed strange that he would have come to Barbados alone, especially with the holiday approaching. “I assume you flew here directly from Sydney?”
A rueful half-smile lit a spark of warmth in his eyes. “I wish I had. I went home first.”
In all the times Elizabeth had imagined her reunion with William, she had never envisioned them standing several feet apart, discussing his travel itinerary. But the tension was leaving his face; besides, her curiosity was piqued. “I thought you weren’t due home till yesterday.”
“I got home last evening. I left first thing this morning to fly down here.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened, her mouth hanging open in astonishment. “You spent, like, a full day getting home from Australia, and around twelve hours later you left again?” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “You must have really needed a few days at the beach!”
Her comment had been light-hearted, but his response was solemn, the words uttered with deep feeling. “I needed to be here.” He swallowed, a muscle in his cheek twitching. “Elizabeth, I—”
“Lizzy!” It was Madeline, hurrying in their direction as fast as the soft sand would allow. “I just saw that it’s half past three! And we promised Edward we’d be back by four.” When she reached Elizabeth’s side, she started slightly, perhaps recognizing William from publicity photos. Elizabeth made the introductions and watched while William accepted Madeline’s proffered handshake.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” Madeline said, “after our phone conversations.”
“I appreciated your help,” he replied with a courtly nod.
Elizabeth frowned, glancing back and forth between them. “Phone conversations?”
“He asked our help getting a recipe for your birthday dinner,” Madeline said.
“Oh, of course!” Elizabeth nodded. “The crab bisque. It was delicious.”
“That dinner you arranged for Lizzy was one of the most charming things I’ve ever heard of. There aren’t too many men who’d go to that kind of trouble.”
“It was no trouble,” he said softly, glancing at Elizabeth and then turning his attention back to Madeline. “I was grateful for your help. Are you enjoying your visit to Barbados?”
“Very much,” Madeline replied. “It’s a beautiful place and it has a fascinating history.”
“Right before I saw you I was thinking how well you described the beach here,” Elizabeth said. “It’s exactly as I always imagined it.” She gazed directly into his eyes, hoping he would read the private message they held. “When I saw you jogging toward me, I thought I’d invented you to complete the vision … that it was just wishful thinking on my part.”
His eyes flared, and he took a small step toward her. The sudden intensity of his dark gaze made her shiver. She had drowned in those eyes before, and she found herself unable to look away.
Madeline’s voice shattered the electric silence. “I’m so sorry, Lizzy, but we need to go.” She offered William an apologetic smile. “My husband is hosting a cocktail party in our suite this evening for some of the conference attendees, and Lizzy and I promised we’d be back in time to help with the setup.”
William pressed his lips together, his eyes narrowing, and Elizabeth saw a muscle working in his jaw. Her uncle had specifically asked her to attend the party. One of his friends, a Broadway buff who had once seen her in Rent, wanted to meet her. But William mattered more than a social event. She was on the verge of sending her aunt back to the hotel alone when Madeline offered a tidy solution.
“William, why don’t you join us for the party? I know Edward would love to meet you, and I’m sure Lizzy would be glad to have someone there who wasn’t constantly grousing about malpractice insurance and Medicare.”
“If you’re sure Dr. Gardiner wouldn’t mind ….” He glanced at Elizabeth, his eyebrows elevated in a silent question.
“Please come,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “It would give us a chance to talk.”
“I’d like that,” he said, his dimples finally making a tentative appearance.
“Excellent,” Madeline said briskly. “Then it’s settled. Five o’clock, Suite 304 at the Royal Palm.”
“304,” he repeated. “I’ll see you soon.”
His questioning gaze fastened on Elizabeth for a long, breathless moment. Then he nodded and turned away.
As they watched him run into the distance, Madeline said, “Maybe I shouldn’t say this about my prospective nephew-in-law, but he’s gorgeous, even out of his formal wear.” She shrugged, grinning. “You have excellent taste, my dear. Come on, let’s get moving. I know you’re going to want lots of time to primp.”
“You mean, in a desperate attempt to be as pretty as he is?”
“I didn’t mean it that way, but now that you mention it ….”
Elizabeth laughed, her eyes still fastened on William’s retreating form. At last he vanished behind a field of boulders, and she glanced around to find her aunt already halfway to their rental car. With the lightning-fast Black Key Etude playing in her mind, she sprinted across the sand to catch up.
William’s body and mind had been locked in battle many times before, the mind advocating logic and discipline while the body sought sensory enjoyment. His mind usually emerged victorious from these skirmishes, but there were times when his body lacked the will or the means to follow where the mind led. This was one of those times. He was simply too exhausted to keep running.
He had encountered Elizabeth near the midpoint of his planned run, leaving him almost three miles from Pemberley, the final section a grueling uphill trek. Ordinarily he relished the challenge; it was a chance for his mind to hold sway over his body, to push his burning legs to the next level. But today he had to stop halfway up the steep path. He leaned forward, palms braced on his thighs as he dragged in huge, gasping lungfuls of humid tropical air. Recalling the incident in Central Park last summer, he felt a moment of panic, but this was different. His heart was beating rapidly but it wasn’t pounding with terrifying intensity as it had then, and unlike that day he sensed no danger of losing consciousness. But should a soft, clean bed materialize along the side of the road, he doubted his ability to bypass it.
A bed. It was a dangerous thought. His five-hour nap in New York last evening had made only a small dent in the sleep debt his body clearly intended to see repaid in full. After his long and emotion-laden discussion with his grandmother, sleep had been out of the question. He had returned to his office to make plane reservations, silently cursing Sonya for her absence in his time of need. Then he had retreated to his sitting room with a book, dozing briefly once or twice but otherwise awake, awaiting the coming of the new day—a day when he might regain Elizabeth, or lose her forever.
She seemed ready to forgive him. Certainly her smiles had been encouraging. Caroline Bingley might choose to submerge anger beneath synthetic cheer to lull a rival into carelessness, but Elizabeth didn’t dole out insincere warmth. Had her phone calls been a prelude to a break-up, she would have made that clear. Instead, she had spoken of seeing him as “wishful thinking” and had warmly seconded her aunt’s invitation for tonight.
A tiny gecko skittered across the path as William levered himself upright, and he watched it vanish into the tall grass. His head still swam with exhaustion, but his breathing was nearly back to normal. He’d done all the running his body could handle until he got a good night’s sleep, but he could still walk. He set off at a brisk pace, anxious to get back to Pemberley and prepare for the party.
On the flight down to the island that morning he had repeatedly envisioned his first meeting with Elizabeth. She would open the door to her hotel room and find him standing there, clean shaven and dressed in his favorite sport coat, a sheaf of roses in his hands. He would be confident and glib, saying all the right things and melting her heart.
He scoffed and glanced down at himself. Instead, Elizabeth—and her aunt, which had made the situation even worse—had encountered him half naked, unshaven, and dripping with sweat, his damp hair a wild mass of curls, his tongue tied in intricate knots. Why the most mortifying moments of his life seemed to occur in Elizabeth’s presence was a question that deserved consideration … some other time.
But he would have a second chance, and soon. Had it not been so, he couldn’t have allowed her to leave despite her aunt’s insistence and his humiliating condition. There was too much at stake to risk letting her slip away. But Mrs. Gardiner’s invitation had neatly resolved the problem, and now it was left to him to make the most of it.