William had begun to wonder if time moved more slowly closer to the equator. It felt that way as he sat in his car on the hotel’s curved driveway, waiting until he could proceed to the Gardiners’ suite. An invitation for five o’clock often implied a “fashionably late” arrival at a quarter past, but William believed in punctuality. Besides, by arriving first he hoped to claim Elizabeth’s undivided attention, perhaps drawing her off to a quiet nook where they could talk privately.
This enticing vision had hurried him through his shower despite the temptation to linger under the refreshing spray. He had risked shredding his face into a bloody pulp while shaving at breakneck speed, but he had managed to escape with only one small nick on the underside of his jaw. He had grumbled an oath or two at the discovery that he was wearing mismatched shoes, but was grateful he made the discovery while walking to the car; it took only a few minutes to return to the house and synchronize his footwear.
And after all that haste, he found himself sitting in his car drumming his fingers on the dashboard—playing, as he belatedly realized, the first movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F—while he waited for five o’clock to arrive.
When he arrived at Suite 304 he was surprised to hear the buzz of voices inside, punctuated by a burst of raucous laughter. He checked his watch to verify that it was exactly five and then knocked at the door, his visions of a quiet chat with Elizabeth shattered by the din inside.
His annoyance melted when the door opened and he saw Elizabeth, a luminous smile spread across her face. “Hi,” she said softly, her eyes glowing like the emeralds to which he often compared them … making them a perfect match to the pendant that glittered around her neck.
He nearly pulled her into his arms on the spot. She must have known it was the single gesture best designed to communicate her feelings. “You’re so beautiful,” he breathed, his carefully planned speech driven from his mind by the sight of her. Not for the first time, he marveled at the strange alchemy she possessed, making her more bewitching each time he saw her. Her dress fastened at one shoulder, falling in silky layers that stopped at her knees. Her hair floated around her face in a lush cloud, and he barely stopped himself from reaching out to feel its texture against his fingers.
“Thank you,” she said softly, a hint of amusement in her smile, and it took him a moment to remember what he’d said in lieu of a proper greeting. “You look very nice yourself.” The appreciation in her eyes proved that she wasn’t just being polite. He had known he’d be overdressed in his white polo shirt and gray suit—most of the men in the room wore tropical print shirts and Bermuda shorts—but he’d wanted to look his best after his disreputable appearance on the beach.
“I thought the party started at five,” he said, peering into the crowded room.
“It was supposed to. But a group of people came up with Uncle Edward at about four thirty, right after the meetings ended, and the next thing Aunt Maddie and I knew we had a party on our hands.”
“I assume this is an orthopedists’ conference?” he asked. Elizabeth had often spoken of the Gardiners’ careers with warm pride.
“Right. Uncle Edward is president of the association. That’s why he’s holding this party for the officers and some others. The conference banquet is tonight; they’ll all be heading down there at six.”
William nodded. An hour of this noise to endure, unless he could tempt Elizabeth to escape sooner.
“Let’s get you a drink,” she said, leading him on a serpentine path through the crowded room. It struck him that in similar circumstances in the past she had often taken his hand. They hadn’t touched today, not even fleeting contact; in fact, he found himself avoiding doing so and suspected the same was true for her. It was as though they each existed inside a fragile bubble, one that could easily burst with fearsome consequences if they drifted too close together. As long as things stayed light and inconsequential, as long as no emotional chord vibrated between them, they would be safe from harm. Safe, but stuck in a place where no progress could be made.
Armed with a glass of red wine, he followed Elizabeth onto the terrace. The air was thick with acrid smoke from cigars brandished by several men and one woman clustered together, chatting.
“Lizzy, come over here!” A man with salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed mustache below a long, thin nose waved his cigar in a jaunty salute. He had a wiry, athletic build and an energetic manner, the air around him seeming to buzz with vitality even through the cloud of smoke that enveloped him. The man, whom William decided must be Elizabeth’s uncle, wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she reached his side. “I assume this is your young man?” he asked, his eyes friendly but appraising as they rested on William.
William, noting her hesitation, stepped forward. “Dr. Gardiner, I’m William Darcy.”
“Good to meet you,” Edward Gardiner answered, extending his hand. William’s eyes widened; the man had a remarkably strong grip. “I’ve seen you in concert. Enjoyed it immensely.”
“Thank you. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Call me Edward. Would you like a Cuban?” He gestured toward a half-empty cigar box on the table behind him.
William was tempted, but he noted Elizabeth’s grimace and reconsidered. “No, but thank you for offering.”
“You’re missing a treat,” Edward replied with a shrug. “Rolled on the thighs of virgins, as they say.”
“Oh, please, not that worn-out legend again,” Elizabeth grumbled.
Edward grinned genially at William. “You’d think I’d brought home a box of poisonous snakes, the way she and her aunt are carrying on. Lizzy says you just got back from Australia. Did you enjoy your trip?”
Edward couldn’t possibly know what a complex question that was. William found a partial answer that was honest but sidestepped the reality of his ten lonely days. “It’s a fascinating country. I wish I’d seen more of it; the farthest I got from Sydney was the Blue Mountains.”
“You didn’t visit the Great Barrier Reef?”
Edward puffed his cigar, his face framed by a wreath of blue smoke. “Madeline and I dove the reef about ten years ago. It’s magnificent. Do you dive?”
“Yes, but it’s been a while.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t know that.”
“My cousin Richard wanted a dive buddy during vacations, so I got my open water certification when I was sixteen.” His cardiologist hadn’t approved but he had insisted, agreeing to restrict himself to shallow-water dives. He nodded at Edward. “Are you going to dive while you’re here?”
“We hope to, after the conference ends. Any recommendations?”
“If you want to dive wrecks, Carlisle Bay is my favorite. There are some good reef diving spots, too, though of course nothing like the Great Barrier Reef. I can suggest an excellent dive operator if you like.”
“Thank you! We’d appreciate that.”
“Edward, there you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” It was Madeline, grimacing and fanning her face to ward off the smoke.
“You should have known I’d be out here. You’re the one who banished my cigars to the terrace.”
“With good reason.” Madeline’s glare melted into a smile as she turned to William. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
“We’re glad you’re here. I hate to keep showing up and dragging people away, but would you and Lizzy excuse us? We have a small catering issue and I need to consult with El Presidente.” Madeline directing a threatening look at Edward. “And don’t even think about bringing that vile thing inside.” She hurried through the doors into the living room.
With a theatrical sigh, Edward stubbed out his cigar. “Duty calls, but I’ll find you later. I’d like to talk more about your diving experiences here.”
Elizabeth watched him go and then gave William a nervous smile. “Alone at last, sort of.” Her eyes traveled in the direction of the knot of cigar smokers occupying most of the terrace.
William’s reply was drowned out by a shout of laughter. He cast a resentful glance over his shoulder, his patience in short supply. He was tired of the noise of the other guests, and of being jostled by the self-appointed life of the party standing directly behind him.
“Would you like to go somewhere quiet, or at least, quieter, and talk?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes.” There it was: the understatement of the year.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said in a hushed voice.
“Mmm.” One disadvantage to Pemberley’s location on the east coast of the island was that the sun rose, instead of setting, over the water, and William was rarely awake at sunrise.
“Yesterday there were clouds right on the horizon so the view wasn’t as good. But this is perfect.” She smiled up at him, and he nearly leaned over to kiss her before stopping himself—and then wondered why he’d stopped. Yes, their protective bubbles were still intact and becoming more impervious by the minute.
He sipped his wine, wondering how to move beyond this impasse. Laughter drifted through the opaque wall separating her terrace from the one off the living room, and he smelled occasional whiffs of cigar smoke. Perhaps they were inhibited by the knowledge that they weren’t alone, not with the Gardiners and dozens of strangers next door. If so, that was a problem he could fix. “Are you going to the banquet with your aunt and uncle?”
“No. They invited me, but I figured I’d be out of place.”
“Then have dinner with me tonight.”
“I’d love to. In fact, if you hadn’t asked me, I was going to ask you.” She took a small sideways step in his direction, their arms almost, but not quite, touching where they rested on the railing.
“I made reservations at The Cliff, hoping you’d say yes.”
Her eyes widened. “Aunt Madeline and Uncle Edward ate there last night. They said it was wonderful.”
“And they didn’t take you with them?” He hoped she hadn’t had plans of her own, perhaps with a young surgeon who had found the Gardiners’ lovely niece an irresistible temptation.
“They didn’t need a third wheel at a place as romantic as The Cliff is supposed to be. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood to go out. I stayed home and had room service.”
His smile turned into a mighty yawn, for which he quickly apologized.
“You look exhausted, poor thing,” she said, inspecting him with a frown. “Let’s sit at the table; at least you can get off your feet.”
“After the sun is done setting. Until then, the view’s better from here.”
“Wow,” she said as they seated themselves at her round glass-topped table. “I’ve seen nice sunsets over the water in California, too, but somehow it’s really special here.”
“Yes, it is.” William rolled his eyes. Another scintillating remark; at this rate, he would bore her right to sleep.
“Thank you for being so nice to my uncle,” she said quietly, staring at her wine glass.
“No need to thank me.”
She sighed and bit her lip. “I know, but ….” She shook her head, and he could almost see her scuttling back to the safety of her bubble. “Never mind.”
Say something! But he wasn’t sure what to say, so he filled the silence by finishing his wine. He glanced at her just as her eyes turned toward him, and they acknowledged the contact with awkward smiles.
“I wondered where you two had gotten to.” It was Edward Gardiner, stepping onto the terrace. “Lizzy, the fellow who saw Rent when you were in the company is here, and he’s not going to leave me alone until I produce you so he can talk about showbiz.”
She flashed a regretful half-smile at William. “I promised I’d talk to Uncle Edward’s friend for a few minutes.”
“Of course.” He stifled a yawn. With any luck the conversation wouldn’t take long and they could leave for dinner soon … so they could go on not talking.
“Why don’t you relax while I take care of this?” She glanced at her uncle. “William has a bad case of jet lag; he’s crossed a lot of time zones in the past 48 hours.”
“In that case, Lizzy’s right,” Edward said heartily. “Stay put, and I’ll send her back as soon as I can. I’ll warn you, though, it might take a while. Joe’s a good guy, but he can be long-winded.”
William dropped into his chair, vaguely disgruntled to be left alone so soon. Still, it wasn’t as though the interruption made much difference. Rarely had he and Elizabeth been in the same room and said so little of significance. It reminded him of their first date in New York, when his nerves had nearly derailed their relationship before it had truly begun.
He resolved to talk to her, really talk, when she returned. And while he was waiting …. William propped his feet on the chair opposite him and leaned back. He would close his eyes, for just a few minutes.
Fifteen minutes passed before Elizabeth managed to extricate herself from the clutches of her uncle’s friend. “Long-winded” had been a polite way to describe him. She had done her best to paste an interested expression on her face while the man rambled on about a friend of a friend who once met Barbra Streisand’s accountant. At last she slipped away, hurrying through the door to her room and onto the terrace.
“I’m back,” she said. “Sorry it took so long. I brought you another glass of wine.” He didn’t answer, but it wasn’t uncommon for William to respond to a remark with a nod or a facial expression, difficult to discern in the darkness. “I’ll light the candle, too.”
She deposited her cargo, including her own glass of wine, on the table and used the matches she had brought to light the candle. In its meager light she saw that his eyes were closed. She seated herself as quietly as she could, flinching at the dull clang of metal on metal when her chair bumped the table leg.
In their brief time as lovers, she had cherished opportunities to watch him sleep. The lines of tension so often evident around his eyes were absent, subtracting years from his face and adding a touching vulnerability. A protective impulse welled up inside her, clogging her throat with emotion. He had subjected himself to a grueling travel schedule, and although she wasn’t certain, it appeared that he’d done it for her.
When she and Madeline had returned to the hotel late that afternoon, a message from William had awaited; he had called not long after her last voicemail inquiry, and before setting out on his run along the beach. His words, though restrained, had corroborated the warm light in his eyes.
So why were they sitting together spinning their wheels, chatting about sunsets and weather and scuba diving? She wondered if her expectations for their reunion had been influenced by unrealistic romances in films. Real-life love was a challenge. People didn’t build relationships to last a lifetime in ninety minutes, sailing off into a beautiful sunset behind the closing credits.
She settled back in her chair, gazing out over the garden. Lights were coming on all around the resort, the sky now fully dark. Once again she noticed the silky caress of the tropical night air against her skin. But tonight the warm scents of the garden competed with cigar smoke drifting from next door on the faint breeze.
“Julian! Julian! Up here!”
Someone on the living room terrace was shouting to an acquaintance passing by down below. Elizabeth sighed and shot a concerned glance at William. It was too late; his eyes flew open and he sat forward abruptly. He blinked several times, licking his lips, and then noticed Elizabeth watching him.
“What? I don’t—” He paused, rubbing his eyes and forehead, and then yawned. “Did I fall asleep? I’m sorry, Lizzy.”
“Don’t be silly. I can see how tired you are. And why do I get the feeling this is more than just jet lag? You haven’t been taking care of yourself, have you?”
“It’s not that,” he answered, rubbing his eyes again. “I haven’t been sleeping much since … for quite some time.”
“Since the weekend when everything happened?”
He nodded and glanced away, retrieving his wine glass from the table.
“Neither have I,” she said. This seemed as good a way as any to break the conversational ice. “I’ve been spending a lot of nights lying on the sofa watching old movies.”
She was both amused and touched by the hopeful note in his voice. “Uh huh.”
He pressed his lips together. “I didn’t mean to seem glad about it. It’s just—”
“It’s just that misery loves company, especially when you’re miserable because of someone you love. You don’t want the other person throwing wild parties every night celebrating your absence.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners and he almost smiled. “I didn’t think you were doing that. Or at least I hoped you weren’t.”
“I wasn’t.” She paused, and they exchanged smiles tinged with sadness. “I’m glad we’re finally talking about this.”
He nodded and set his glass on the table. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult.”
“I’ve been thinking about that. There’s so much to say, so many issues to work out, that maybe we don’t know where to start. Plus, we’re nervous about the outcome because there’s so much at stake.”
William’s eyes were on the candle, the red glass jar surrounding it glowing weakly. “Yes, there is,” he said at last, his voice so soft she could barely hear him.
“So here’s my idea,” she said, drawing his curious gaze. “We need to talk about all of it eventually, and it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of honesty. But let’s start by skipping to the punch line. Then we can work our way backwards.”
“What’s the punch line?”
She fixed her eyes on his face and spoke with conviction. “That I love you. That I’ve never felt this way about anyone before, and I doubt I ever will again. That I need you in my life. I had no idea how much I needed you till you were gone. And if you feel the same way—”
“I do,” he said, speaking the words as a solemn vow. “That’s why I’m here.” He sat forward and grasped her hand.
“Here on this terrace, or here in Barbados?”
He squeezed her hand. “Both. I couldn’t stay away, not after I heard your message last night and knew you wanted to see me. So I caught the first flight this morning.”
She shifted her chair closer to his. “I was planning to fly to New York to see you, but I wanted to wait till you called, to make sure I’d be welcome. Though if I hadn’t heard from you by tonight I was going to take my chances and just show up.”
He loosened his grip on her hand and began to stroke her palm with his thumb, the heat of his touch melting her insides like the candle on the table. “It makes me so happy to hear that,” he said.
“If we were both willing to go to such lengths just to be in the same room,” she said in an unsteady voice—how was she supposed to concentrate if he insisted on making love to her hand?—“then don’t you think we can work out our problems?”
He nodded slowly and leaned forward, raising her hand to his lips. His eyes burned into hers as he turned her hand palm up, pressing a lingering kiss to her wrist.
Elizabeth swallowed, trying to keep her thoughts from swimming out of focus. “And in that case ….” Her voice was breathy beyond recognition. She drew her forearm from his grasp, took his face in her hands, and pressed her mouth firmly to his.
He grunted in obvious surprise, but his lips moved hungrily against hers, the sensation thrilling her despite, or perhaps because of, its familiarity. When at last they drew apart, his eyes were half-lidded again, but with desire, not fatigue. “My sweet Lizzy,” he murmured, tangling his fingers in the curls lying along her neck. “I love you so much, cara.”
“And I love you.” She turned her head sideways to rest her cheek against his hand.
“I imagined you so often, looking the way you do now, with that soft, sleepy look in your eyes, the way you look when you’ve been thoroughly kissed.”
She could have replied that he had just described himself, but instead she quirked an eyebrow at him. “Thoroughly?”
He chuckled and slid his hands down to her wrists, tugging gently. “All right, then. Come over here and let’s see what we can do about that.”
She gladly settled onto his lap, sighing in contentment when his arms closed around her, strong and warm and wonderfully familiar. His eyes flared with hunger as they locked on her lips, but she stopped his head in mid-descent. “Let me look at you for a minute,” she whispered.
“Because I love seeing that soft, sleepy look in your eyes, too.” She gave him a mischievous grin. “I just hope in your case it’s not because you’re having trouble staying awake.”
He toyed with a lock of hair lying against her cheek. “No, I seem to be getting my second wind.”
She had forgotten how beautiful he was: the soft waves of his coffee-colored hair, the aristocratic perfection of his nose, and above all the emotion burning so eloquently in his dark eyes. She traced a line along his lips, soft and warm against her finger, and he closed his eyes, making an anguished sound deep in his throat. “I missed you every day, every moment,” he muttered in a hoarse voice, pulling her tightly against him. “I thought I’d lose my mind.”
“I missed you too,” she whispered, burying her face against his neck, her eyes stinging with tears. “Even when I didn’t want to miss you, I did.”
“Lizzy, I’m sorry. For everything. I know I messed up so many things. And I hurt you, which was the last thing I wanted to do. Can you ever forgive me?”
She raised her head and saw tears shimmering in his eyes. “Please don’t cry,” she murmured, caressing his cheek. “Because if you do, I’m going to start sobbing.”
“Okay, we’ll agree not to cry, then. But, truly, cara, I’m so sorry.” He kissed her gently.
His rebellious lock of hair had, as usual, drifted onto his forehead, and Elizabeth couldn’t resist smoothing it. “I’ve been thinking about a line from a movie that came out before we were even born. Mom loved it, and she had it on video. It turned up on late night TV about a week ago, and I cried my way through the whole thing. It was about two college students who fell in love, and at one point, one of them said, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’”1
“Do you believe that?”
“No, which is probably making you wonder why I brought it up.” Her rueful smile faded. “But it got me thinking about what love does mean. And that’s when I realized I had to give us a chance to start fresh … or at least to go onward from here. Although we still have to figure out what that means.”
He nodded. “Could we start by talking about the proposal?”
She hadn’t intended for the “figuring out” to start immediately. It was important, of course, but she was in his arms for the first time in weeks, and other ideas were rapidly suggesting themselves. But rather than discourage his proactive approach, she nodded.
“I didn’t understand what was wrong with the proposal at first,” he said. “I didn’t entirely understand when I wrote the letter. But now I think I do.”
He paused for a moment, wearing a slight frown, his eyes directed up to the ceiling. She knew him well enough to realize that he was collecting his thoughts, so she waited in silence. When he continued, he spoke slowly. “I claimed that I was doing what I thought we’d both want, but that wasn’t true. What I’d really done … was to construct what seemed like a perfect marriage, strictly from my own selfish perspective. My life would stay exactly the same … except for the major improvement that you’d always be at my side.” At this, he began to caress her cheek, his touch exquisitely gentle. “But your life would have been turned upside down, all for my sake, and that didn’t even occur to me.”
She nodded, her eyes locked on his face. She hadn’t expected him to get to the heart of her concerns so quickly.
“I didn’t realize how selfish, and how patronizing, my assumptions were until I finally managed to see it through your eyes. I am so very sorry.”
“Because you realize it now, you are forgiven.” She kissed his cheek.
“Thank you. And I’ll ask now what I should have asked then. What is your definition of a perfect relationship between us? I’m sure it’s entirely different from mine.”
She grinned. “You’ve got that right! Let’s see … my perfect scenario would be for you to tell me you aren’t going to tour anymore during the school year, except for occasional short trips up and down the west coast, that you’re going to travel to places all over the world every summer and I’m invited, and that you’re going to make San Francisco your home base from now on.”
He raised his eyebrows. “So we have some work to do.”
“Yes, and I’m so glad you understand that,” she replied. “But let’s work on it a little later. Right now ….”
Rather than explain what she wanted, she began to dust soft kisses on his throat and jaw. When she reached his ear, he turned his head and, with a low groan, claimed her mouth in an incendiary kiss that demanded her soul. The flame already burning inside her roared into a bonfire and she clung to him, matching his passion and answering him with demands of her own.
“All right,” she gasped, dragging her lips away from his and pulling much-needed air into her lungs. “Now I’ve been thoroughly kissed.”
“Not by half,” he growled, and she shivered as his mouth covered hers again.
Madeline Gardiner surveyed the living room. It was, to put it bluntly, a mess, with empty plates and glasses strewn everywhere. But unlike the aftermath of a party held at home, here she needed only to leave a generous tip—as she gazed around, she amended that to a very generous tip—for the housekeeping staff.
“Ready to go?” she called to Edward. They were running late; their guests had already moved on to the banquet room.
He emerged from the bedroom, tucking his wallet into his trouser pocket. “Where are Lizzy and William?” he asked, glancing around. “I want the name of that dive operator he mentioned. I suppose they’re still on her terrace?” He turned toward the door to Elizabeth’s room, which was slightly ajar.
“Don’t.” Madeline stepped into his path.
“Why not? I just want to ask him—”
“Leave them alone.”
He cocked his head to one side, his eyes narrowing. “You think there’s something going on over there? He’d better not be taking advantage of my niece under my roof.”
Madeline shook her head. “For heaven’s sake, you make it sound like she’s sixteen. Not to mention the fact that it’s not your roof; you’re only renting it for a few days. But that’s not what I meant.” She hadn’t acquainted Edward with what few details she knew of Elizabeth’s romantic problems, and she saw no need to do so now. “They need some time to themselves without interruptions. You can ask him about the dive operator tomorrow.”
“Okay, boss,” he said with a shrug. “In that case, let’s go. We’re late.”
Madeline retrieved her purse from the coffee table, but she didn’t immediately follow him. As she gently shut the door leading to Elizabeth’s room, she heard soft laughter coming from the terrace. “Good for you, Lizzy,” she murmured, a warm smile stealing across her face as she hurried after her husband.
1 Lizzy is referring to Love Story, a 1970 tearjerker starting Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal, based on a best-selling novel. It was the highest-grossing movie ever released at that time, and half a century later it is still in the all-time top 50 for gross film revenues when adjusted for inflation.