“It’s not funny.” William glared at Elizabeth in mock annoyance, pressing his lips together to hold back the grin that threatened to burst onto his face. He held her perched on his lap, his sheltering arm supporting her while her shoulders shook with laughter.
She took a deep breath and kissed his cheek, her eyes dancing with merriment. “It is so funny,” she retorted, “and you’d think so too if it were my stomach grumbling at inopportune moments instead of yours. But I have to admit, it doesn’t take much to make me laugh right now. I’m a little giddy.”
He understood how she felt, afloat as he was in a sea of delight, relief, and growing desire, with a helping of exhaustion thrown in for good measure. He glanced over his shoulder into her dimly-lit hotel room, the bed’s white linens glowing like the Holy Grail. She exploited his position to press her lips to his neck, her unerring radar targeting a vulnerable spot behind his ear. The few remaining drops of blood not already pooled in his groin sprinted to join their comrades, and he groaned in delicious agony.
“At least I don’t need to ask if you’re hungry,” she teased.
His cheek twitched as he suppressed a grimace at her innocent—or at least so it seemed—double entendre. He silently scolded his body for its ungentlemanly behavior, his reproof as effective as a droplet of water on a bonfire. Fantasies of Elizabeth lying beneath him, warm and welcoming, looped endlessly through his mind. She was no help at all, encouraging his lustful thoughts by anointing his neck with kisses and attacking the patch of his chest peeking through the collar of his polo shirt. He wished he had worn a button-front shirt—it might have inspired her to unveil additional territory. He buried his face in her hair, inhaling the clean floral scent of her shampoo.
How would she react if he simply stood up, carried her to the bed, and surrendered to the cravings buffeting his self-control? Would she be eager, nervous, or offended by his impatience? He would have traded Pemberley for the gift of clairvoyance—no, not Pemberley. His Porsche, then. But until a psychic beamed onto the terrace to accept the bargain, he thought it best to linger in safe territory.
Besides, he wanted her in his bed at Pemberley, not here under the inhibiting cloud of her aunt and uncle’s presence in the next room. The Gardiners were temporarily out for dinner but they would be back in a few hours, and his heated imagination had concocted elaborate plans requiring the entire night to execute.
Even the Gardiners’ abduction by aliens wouldn’t solve William’s other, more urgent problem. He had anticipated spending days in earnest conversation with Elizabeth before they exchanged more than a few kisses. But she apparently envisioned a much faster and more passionate reconciliation. While he heartily endorsed her vision, he was unprepared for much beyond the kisses and caresses they had already shared. He stared over her head into the darkness, silently giving thanks that it wasn’t possible to die of frustration.
“Hey, where did you go?” Elizabeth murmured in his ear, raking the lobe gently with her teeth and sending a fresh wave of desire slamming into his rib cage. “You’re a thousand miles away all of a sudden.”
“Sorry,” he rasped. He drew her head firmly away from his ear, tempted nearly beyond his endurance to take her to bed and put an end to this purgatory. “I was thinking about … something.”
“I’d offer a penny for your thoughts, but my purse is in the bedroom.” Her hands massaged his shoulders, the heat almost unbearable through his soft knit shirt.
He almost offered to escort her there to get it. Meanwhile, an insidious part of his mind whispered that the Gardiners might stay out longer than expected, perhaps well into the night. And as for protection, there were other ways to prevent pregnancy that—
He flung the idea aside. The “other ways” were unreliable, particularly since at the moment he couldn’t trust his self-control. He sighed and loosened his hold on her. “Maybe we should be on our way to dinner.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, a small frown creasing her forehead. Her expression cleared and she hopped to her feet, extending her hands to him. “In case you need help getting up after I’ve been squashing you for heaven knows how long,” she teased.
He rose from the chair unaided and seized her hand. “Feel free to squash me any time,” he said, grinning. “Are you ready to go?”
“Give me a minute to fix my hair and make-up and grab my purse.”
A solution to his dilemma popped into his head fully formed, and he acted on it at once. “Why don’t you meet me out in front of the hotel? It’ll take a few minutes for the valet to bring my car around.” But first he would stop at the gift shop just off the lobby and hope that it had what he needed.
“You can just call and tell them the ticket number,” she said, with a small shake of the head. “The phone’s right over there.”
“I’d rather do it in person.” William rummaged through his brain for an excuse. “I tipped one of the attendants to take special care of the car, and I want him to handle it.”
Elizabeth’s wide, warm smile nearly buckled his knees. “That’s my guy,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder as she stretched up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Protect the car at all costs. Is it another Ferrari?”
“Meet me in the lobby and find out.” His hands encircled her waist and he bent his head for a five-alarm kiss from which they emerged flushed and breathless. He glanced regretfully at the bed. “We’d better stop this, or we may not make it to the restaurant before it closes.”
“You know, we could order room service.” She reached up to smooth his hair, setting his scalp thrumming with electricity. “Then we wouldn’t have to go anywhere.” Her lips grazed his cheek.
Suddenly he couldn’t breathe, and he decided it was possible to die of frustration after all. Summoning the last of his resolve, he stepped away from her. “I’ll see you in the lobby.”
Elizabeth stood staring at the door, wondering what had sent William striding through it with such single-minded purpose after turning down her not-so-veiled offer. “How flattering,” she said to herself.
She knew she had as much right as William to be the seducer instead of the seduced, but residual hesitation made her uneasy about taking even the subtlest initiative. It didn’t help her confidence when she finally shoved her inhibitions aside only to have her quarry bolt for the nearest exit.
She stepped into the bathroom and studied herself in the mirror. She didn’t look frightening. Her lipstick had vanished, but she wouldn’t have been surprised to find all her make-up melted away, considering the heat they had generated on the terrace. Yet despite that heat, William had preferred the restaurant to a private dinner for two, served within sight of her bed.
She fixed her lipstick and frowned at her reflection. She could drive herself insane trying to read William’s mind; his talent for inscrutability was exceeded only by his musical abilities. But she had no doubts about what she wanted. She packed her toothbrush and a few other necessities in her purse. And if I’m taking charge, what about—?
Elizabeth hurried out the door, grateful to have remembered this crucial detail. She would have to hope the hotel gift shop stayed open on Sunday evenings.
William pulled the car into The Cliff restaurant’s driveway, stifling a yawn behind his hand. He blinked hard, hoping to clear his bleary vision, though his drooping eyelids left him viewing the world chiefly through the veil of his eyelashes. It astonished him that his body could be on the verge of collapse while his mood was so buoyant.
He had been too tired to speak during the drive, his fatigue-soaked brain engrossed by the challenges of driving on the left-hand side of the road. Elizabeth had been silent as well, aside from a few teasing remarks about the Porsche. “Some men have a woman in every port,” she had said with a sly grin. “With you, it’s a sports car.” Her hand had covered his where it rested on the gearshift lever. “Not that I’m complaining.”
The parking attendant hurried around the car to assist Elizabeth while William hauled himself to his feet. She tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, and together they approached the restaurant’s front door.
He gave his name to the hostess, who grimaced and excused herself, dashing away. As he pondered her odd behavior, a wave of fatigue sent him reeling. He swayed drunkenly, grabbing the hostess’s podium to steady himself.
Elizabeth clutched his arm. “Are you all right?”
Before he could answer, a huge, insistent yawn engulfed his throat.
“You’re practically sleepwalking, aren’t you?” Her voice held a mixture of concern and exasperation.
“I’ll be fine once we sit down.” At least he hoped so. Pitching head first into his salad plate seemed equally likely.
“Let’s not do this tonight,” she said. “You need sleep, not a night on the town.”
“I’m fine.” But his words lacked conviction, and her answering frown radiated skepticism.
William was spared her rebuttal by the return of the hostess, followed by the restaurant manager. “Good evening, Mr. Darcy,” he said, oozing unctuous charm. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. I hope Mrs. Darcy and Miss Darcy are well. And Mr. Fitzwilliam, of course.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The manager’s expression waffled between a cordial smile and a painful wince. “But I’m afraid we have a small problem. You see, your reservation was for over an hour ago. We assumed that your plans had changed.”
William raised his eyebrows, waiting in lofty silence for more information.
The manager’s smile morphed into a wince. “I’m afraid we gave up your table not five minutes ago.” His words tumbled out at a frantic pace. “Of course our next available table is yours, but it may be a while before one opens up.”
The message seeped into William’s foggy brain, and his nostrils flared. He prepared to berate the manager and stalk out of the restaurant, never to return. But Elizabeth spoke before his sleep-deprived synapses could send instructions to his vocal cords.
“Of course we understand,” she said. “But I don’t think it’ll work for us to wait for a table. I’m sure you don’t usually prepare food to go, but perhaps just this once …?” She tilted her head, her eyebrows raised.
“Of course! It would be our pleasure.”
“Thank you so much,” she said. She glanced at William. “Shall we wait in the lounge? We can sit and have a drink.”
“Of course.” The manager extended his arm in that direction. “We could also serve you dinner in there, if you like.”
Elizabeth smiled, shaking her head. “Thank you, but we’ll just take the food to go. It’s probably for the best anyway.”
William brought up the rear of their little parade, befuddled but impressed by the swift grace with which Elizabeth had seized control of the situation.
Once they were settled comfortably on a sleek blue sofa in the lounge, Elizabeth smiled at him. “I’m sorry. I guess I should have run my plan by you first, shouldn’t I? After all, that’s one of the things I lectured you about.”
He leaned back and stretched his arm across the sofa behind her head. “No, it’s fine. Tonight I’m happy to let you take charge of everything.”
“Which just proves how exhausted you are.”
He smiled in rueful agreement. “Speaking of your plan, where are we going to eat our dinners once they’re ready?”
“How about at Pemberley? I’m dying to see it.”
“Perfect.” They could eat on the patio by the pool, or in the garden gazebo. He frowned at his sudden tendency toward alliteration, chalking it up to fatigue. Or they could break bread in his bedroom. The thought jolted him wide awake. Yes, going to Pemberley suited him perfectly.
She nestled closer to him. “Maybe it’s just as well they didn’t have a table. I think you’re too tired to enjoy a leisurely dinner here. We need to get you home, fed, and tucked into bed as soon as possible.”
He was still salivating over this tantalizing vision when the bartender arrived with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. “Compliments of the manager,” he said, his British accent softened by the characteristic lilt of the islands.
William and Elizabeth sipped their drinks, their eyes meeting and holding in silent contentment. The view from the lounge couldn’t compare to the atmosphere in the dining area, overlooking the sea, but he felt himself surrendering to the caress of the soft tropical air and the warmth of Elizabeth’s body next to his. He slid his foot over until it rubbed lazily against hers, and her smile broadened as she returned the gentle pressure. Then he set his glass on the low table in front of them and captured her hand. “I haven’t thanked you for wearing the emerald.”
“Why would you thank me?” She glanced down at it. “I love wearing it.”
“But I was glad to see it around your neck, to realize what it meant. At least, I assume I interpreted it properly.”
She nodded. “I couldn’t wear it for a while after you left. But once I decided I wanted to try to work things out, wearing it made me feel closer to you.”
“When you tried to return it to me that night—” He paused, shaking his head, the pain still fresh.
“I know. It’s just that Charlotte told me how much you probably paid for it.”
“I don’t care about the money. That’s not why I wanted you to have it.”
“But it seemed wrong to keep such an expensive gift when I wasn’t sure what might happen between us.”
“Then you were considering breaking off our relationship permanently.”
“I don’t know.” She tightened her grip on his hand. “I was hurt and confused; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I could make it hurt less if I put aside any reminders of you.” She shook her head, sighing. “It was pointless. I doubt I stopped thinking about you once the whole time.”
He raised her hand to his lips. “It was the same for me.”
“Not that I didn’t try to forget you. I refused to talk about you, and I made Jane take the orchids to her office so I wouldn’t see them. I tried to distract myself. I even went to a singles bar with some friends one night.”
William’s eyes narrowed. He preferred to think of her sitting alone longing for him, as he had for her.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a brittle smile that filled him with shame for his selfish thought. “It was awful. I saw someone who looked a little bit like you and it broke my heart. So I went home early and watched old black-and-white movies till I finally fell asleep on the sofa.”
He stroked her hand. “Poor Lizzy.”
Her eyes dropped to their hands. “It was either that or cry my eyes out. I was so angry with you, but I missed you so much.”
He could think of only one response. He leaned over and brushed his mouth against hers. She stroked his cheek as their lips lingered together, the contact feather-light yet profound, full of healing warmth.
When at last he raised his head, he noticed the restaurant manager watching them intently from what the man must have considered a discreet distance. “I think we’d better order before he has a heart attack,” William said with a crooked grin.
She opened her menu, mirth sparkling in her eyes. “I take it you’re a good customer?”
“Obviously not good enough to have a table held for me, but the owners are social acquaintances.”
“Aha. No wonder the poor man was almost in tears. They expect him to sell as many dinners as possible, but he’s not supposed to tick off the owners’ friends.”
The hovering manager took their orders and departed for the kitchen, leaving them alone with the bartender. William draped his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders and leaned back with a grateful sigh. He closed his eyes, fatigue and contentment melting his bones until he thought he might dissolve into the sofa. His fingers wove through her curls and skimmed her soft, bare shoulder, and she slid closer. Faint noises in the background flitted around the edges of his consciousness: the soft hum of voices on the terrace below, the occasional chimes and clicks of dishes and utensils jostling together. And beneath it all, the ever-present swish of the ocean, its waves timid and pliable on this side of the island.
“Should we tackle one of our difficult topics while we wait?” she asked, her voice rousing him from near-sleep.
He made a face. He thought it unwise to cross verbal swords with Elizabeth in his mentally depleted condition. “Can that wait till later?”
“Sure. We have time. At least, I assume we do. How soon do you have to be back in New York? Two, three days?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I assume you’re under orders to be home for Thanksgiving dinner, if not sooner.”
A tiny snort escaped William’s lips. She understood his grandmother remarkably well. “As long as you’re here, I’m here.” Not even the threat of Rose Darcy’s wrath would pull him from Elizabeth’s side.
“That’s sweet, but if you want to be with your family for the holiday, I understand. I wouldn’t even mind going to New York with you, if you wanted me to. After all, that was our original plan.”
“Thank you, but no.” He had already considered and rejected this possibility.
“If it would be awkward for me to stay at the house, I can stay with Sally. I already called her to make sure.”
“That’s not the problem. I’ve been wanting to show you Pemberley, and I finally have my chance. Besides, down here I can have you all to myself.”
“Almost. Don’t forget my aunt and uncle.”
“I guess I can share you with them.”
They fell silent again, and William felt himself drifting back into a contented stupor. He nearly kicked off his shoes and propped his feet on the coffee table before he remembered he wasn’t at home.
“Thank you for talking to Charles about Jane,” she said after a lengthy silence.
He roused himself from the edge of sleep. “No need to thank me. I should have done it sooner. I assume he’s been up to visit her?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I haven’t talked to him since I left LA.”
“He’s in San Francisco, permanently, and he and Jane—well, she says they’re taking things slowly, but I have a feeling they’ll be making plans for another wedding soon.”
“That’s excellent news. I’m sorry for the pain I caused them, and you. It was a misunderstanding, but I know I was mostly to blame.”
“You were,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “maybe not mostly, but partly for sure. Still, Charles was responsible, too. And he should have told both you and his father to butt out of his life.”
He grinned ruefully, but the smile faded fast. “So my letter made a difference? To you, I mean.”
She nodded. “I thought you knew why Jane wouldn’t sign the prenup. With as little as Charles told you, it’s no wonder you had doubts. But, you know ….” She hesitated, tipping her head and studying his face. She must have been satisfied with what she saw, because she continued. “You had an awful lot of confidence in your opinion of Jane, especially considering how little you knew her. And even after you saw her more, and saw what she was like ….” Elizabeth shook her head. “Didn’t you ever stop to think that you might have been wrong?”
“I was confused at times. I said that in the letter. But given what I thought I knew about the prenup, and what I’d heard your mother say ….” He fell silent. He had explained himself in his letter far better than he was likely to manage at the moment.
She fell silent, inspecting her fingernails. “It hurts that you completely discounted my opinion of her.”
“I’m sorry that I hurt you. But none of us are objective about the people we love. Considering what I knew, or thought I knew, my conclusions seemed reasonable. But I realize that I put too much faith in my judgment. I should have talked to you when I started to have doubts.”
Sighing, she sat forward and retrieved her champagne glass. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe Jane just doesn’t flaunt her emotions? That she prefers to be discreet?”
It had occurred to him. He had pointed it out to Charles at the airport, and had also mentioned it in his letter. But at the moment, William lacked the mental acuity to argue the point. He took refuge in his champagne glass.
“Here’s the part I find interesting,” Elizabeth said, her narrowed eyes focused on his glass. “Does Jane remind you of anyone? Someone else who prefers to keep his feelings private?”
She had positioned him so cleverly in the jaws of her trap that he hadn’t noticed until now, as it sprang shut. “I never thought of it that way.”
“There have been plenty of times when I didn’t have a clue what was going on in your head. Good thing I didn’t assume the worst and write you off, isn’t it?”
William was tempted to tell her that she had done precisely that on a few occasions, first assuming he was only interested in sex, and later casting him out, forbidding him to call her. But that conversation could wait. He drew her close, stroking her hair. “I know I can be hard to read sometimes. You’ve heard Sonya and Richard tease me about being inscrutable, and sometimes it’s intentional. But you’re the only one who’s ever doubted my feelings for you.”
Her eyes dropped to her lap and then lifted to meet his inquiring gaze. “I know. Char and Jane told me that all the time. I just had trouble believing you’d care about someone like me.”
“I’ve never understood why. You’re smart and funny and sweet, and you’re kind and generous to everybody but me—”
She winced. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m teasing,” he said, his smiling lips brushing her cheek. “Mostly, anyway.”
Elizabeth drew away from him with a mischievous grin and poked his side. He wouldn’t have minded having a full-fledged tickle fight in private, where it might have evolved into something more interesting. But the lounge, even in its near-deserted state, was still a public place. He grabbed her hands and held tight while she struggled to yank free from his grasp, no doubt to poke him again.
“Let me finish,” he said, staring directly into her eyes. “You also have the voice of an angel, you make me happier than I’ve ever been, and you’re so sexy you’ve had me tied in knots for months.”
Her lips twitched and she raised one eyebrow. “I thought we’d gotten you pretty well untangled at one point.”
After a quick glance to confirm that they were alone, he released her arms, brushed her hair aside, and nuzzled her neck just behind her ear, gratified by her soft sigh. “That was weeks ago,” he whispered.
“Then I guess we have our work cut out for us.” She brushed a slow, seductive finger along the neckline of his polo shirt.
He shuddered as his flesh sizzled beneath her touch. He nearly hauled her on top of him, belatedly reminding himself yet again that the lounge offered no guarantee of privacy. “Where the hell is our food?”
Her eyes gleamed in obvious understanding. “I’m sure it’ll be here soon.”
“Not soon enough,” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and scowling at her when she laughed in response.