“That happened to a colleague of ours when he took a group of us sailing on the Chesapeake,” Madeline said with a snicker. “I don’t know what happens to the average man when he gets behind the wheel of a big, expensive boat, but I can tell you, it’s not pretty. Joe was insufferable, telling tales of his daring exploits at sea and barking orders at everyone. Edward started muttering, ‘Call me Ishmael’ under his breath.”
Elizabeth giggled, nearly choking on the mouthful of iced tea she’d just gulped.
Madeline continued. “Anyway, we stopped for an afternoon drink in Rock Hall and rammed the town dock on the way in. A bunch of college kids partying at a dockside bar gave us a standing ovation. Thank heaven the boat wasn’t badly damaged, but I can’t say the same for Joe’s ego. He was much quieter on the trip back.”
Elizabeth speared a bite of her curried chicken salad. She’d been waiting until they had their food to raise an important topic. “Aunt Maddie? I need to talk to you about something.”
Madeline glanced up as she cut a piece of her fish cake. “‘Something’ being an insanely attractive concert pianist, I assume.”
“I suppose you’ve gathered that we’ve resolved our differences. Or at least we’re working on it.”
“I’ve gathered a bit more than that.” Madeline waved away a tiny bird attempting to land on their table. “I know you spent last night with him.”
“Did you hear me come in this morning?”
“Edward and I saw you in the lobby when we were on our way to breakfast. Even if you were the sort to go for an early-morning walk, you wouldn’t have been wearing your dress from last night.”
Elizabeth winced. “So much for my stealth tactics. You should have seen me tiptoeing around, hoping you wouldn’t hear me.”
Madeline patted Elizabeth’s arm. “Don’t be embarrassed. I only told you what I saw so you wouldn’t feel compelled to beat around the bush. It’s your business and William’s what happens between the two of you, and it couldn’t be more obvious how happy you are.”
Elizabeth beamed at her aunt. “Even with all the walking we’ve done today, I don’t think my feet have touched the ground.”
“I’m glad it’s working out for the two of you.” Madeline sipped her iced tea. “And you know, you could have cancelled this morning and stayed with him. I would have understood.”
“I thought about it,” Elizabeth said, wrinkling her nose, “but you invited me on this trip to keep you company during Uncle Edward’s conference, not to run off on my own.”
“But let’s not carry it to extremes. You don’t need to babysit me.”
“It’s not babysitting. I enjoy being with you.”
“And it’s mutual. But you and William are just getting over a rough patch, so of course you need time together. Edward’s done with his conference tomorrow afternoon, and between now and then I’ll be fine.”
“How about this for a compromise? I invited William to come to the hotel this afternoon. I thought he could hang out at the pool with us. And Uncle Edward wanted his advice about dive operators, so maybe the four of us could have a drink together before dinner.”
“That sounds lovely, but if you two would rather be alone, it’s fine.”
“We’ll still have time to ourselves. I want you and Uncle Edward to get to know him.” Elizabeth set down her fork. “Aunt Maddie, I love him so much.”
Madeline’s warm, wise smile spread over Elizabeth like a benediction. “I know you do.”
“And if I were to vanish from the hotel after our cocktail hour, you’d understand?”
“Of course. I assume he’s asked you to spend the rest of the week at his house?” Madeline took a bite of her fish cake.
Elizabeth nodded. “I told him I would, as long as you and Uncle Edward don’t mind.” She didn’t doubt her aunt’s support. The request was only a formality, but one she felt she owed the Gardiners in her status as their guest.
“We don’t mind in the least. However, just so you know, Edward was a little taken aback when he saw you arriving home this morning. But don’t worry about that. I can handle your uncle. I just need to convince him that you’re not sixteen anymore.”
Elizabeth smiled. Edward had three daughters, all of whom chafed at their father’s loving but razor-sharp protective instinct.
Elizabeth reached under her chair to make sure her own purchases were still in their place. She might gather the courage to wear one of them this afternoon … maybe.
William squinted, the glare fierce even through his sunglasses, and scanned the dozens of lounge chairs infesting the pool area. He wondered why he had agreed to spend an afternoon on the hotel’s bustling pool deck instead of basking in idyllic seclusion at Pemberley. He hated this carnival of people trying to impress each other, the air scented with chlorine, cocoa butter, and self-importance. But Elizabeth had invited him, and he would brave almost anything in return for her company.
He scowled as he wandered among the chairs, half expecting to hear sizzling noises rising from the rows of glistening flesh soaking up the sun’s blistering heat. At last he saw Elizabeth sit up, shade her eyes, and wave at him from a quiet nook far from the pool. She stood as he approached, and his mouth watered at the sight of her legs emerging from the gauzy shirt she wore over her bathing suit.
“Hi, there, Sleeping Beauty,” she said softly, for his ears only. He planted a soft kiss on her smiling lips, his annoyance swept away by the warmth of her greeting.
He took a breath, preparing to protest her vanishing act that morning, when he noticed Madeline Gardiner reclining on a neighboring lounge chair. She returned William’s greeting with a smile and a friendly nod. “We appreciate you coming over here to keep us company,” she said, adjusting the broad-brimmed hat shading her face.
“Have a seat.” Elizabeth indicated a lounge chair beside hers, empty except for a folded yellow towel of the sort he’d seen other sunbathers using. “I assume you brought your swim trunks?”
“I’m wearing them.” William had worn his trunks beneath more appropriate attire for the hotel lobby. He unbuttoned his shirt, draping it neatly over the back of the chair. When he reached for his belt buckle, the hungry gleam in Elizabeth’s eyes froze him momentarily in place, but he stripped down to his swim trunks and settled onto the lounge chair.
“Did you enjoy your morning?” he asked Madeline, fighting the urge to toss Elizabeth over his shoulder and commandeer one of the poolside cabanas for a passionate tryst.
“Yes, we did. There are a few historic sites in town, and we did some shopping and had a nice lunch. Lizzy, you ought to show him what you bought.”
“Not right now,” Elizabeth said, a brittle edge in her voice. What it meant, he couldn’t guess. Madeline smirked and opened the travel guidebook in her lap.
Elizabeth’s eyes resumed their inspection of his body. “You got a tan in Australia,” she said softly.
He nodded. “I spent most of my days outdoors, sometimes at the beach.”
“You look … bigger, too.”
He lifted an eyebrow, his mind rushing to the most suggestive interpretation of her remark. Madeline made a noise that could have been either a cough or a snicker, but a sidelong glance in her direction showed her eyes fixed studiously on her book.
Elizabeth winced. “I meant that you look different through the shoulders and chest. Not like you’ve gained weight, but … stronger, somehow.” She inspected her fingernails. “Bigger.”
“I had a lot of free time in Australia, so I stepped up my workout regimen.” He instinctively squared his shoulders and thrust out his chest.
“Well, it shows,” she said, smiling. “I noticed it last night, but—” She glanced at Madeline, whose eyes remained riveted on her book.
“Would you like to take a walk on the beach, and maybe go for a swim?” he asked. Anything for a bit of privacy.
She nodded with alacrity. “Great idea. Do you want to come, Aunt Maddie?”
William nearly groaned aloud, but Madeline glanced up and shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m quite comfortable here with my book. You two go on along and I’ll guard our chairs.”
He jumped to his feet and extended a hand, pulling Elizabeth up from the low lounge chair. After a moment’s hesitation she unbuttoned her thin white shirt and slipped it off her shoulders, all the while avoiding eye contact.
Every water molecule in William’s body vaporized at the sight of the blue bikini molding her lush curves to perfection. He could only stare, slack-jawed and outwardly inert, his insides a whirling mass of pride, possessive jealousy, and above all, roiling lust. At last he regained enough control to close his mouth with an audible click.
“I bought it this morning,” she said. “Aunt Maddie talked me into it. It’s the first time I’ve worn something that could be sewn from a few leftover scraps of fabric.” She glanced down at herself and crossed her arms over her bare stomach. “I think bikinis are meant for women who are thinner than I am.”
“No,” he croaked. “It looks … absolutely perfect on you.”
She raised her eyes to his and, with a tremulous smile, drew her shoulders back and dropped her arms to her sides. Again he cast a furtive glance at the cabanas lining the pool area.
It seemed to William that every male head swiveled in their direction as they wandered along the path to the beach. His eyes fired a continual barrage of warning shots and he kept her hand tightly clasped in his, but his annoyance was tempered by pride. They could only look; she belonged to him.
“Do you see all the women looking at you?” she murmured. “Not that I blame them.”
“Your opinion is the only one I care about.”
“Ah, the ego needs feeding, does it? Okay, just this once. You look fantastic, and so sexy. Catnip in human form.”
They stepped onto the beach, the sand like hot coals under their bare feet as they picked their way gingerly toward an open area where they could spread their towels. William shaded his eyes against the relentless sun, regretting his decision to leave his sunglasses in his shirt pocket.
Padded lounge chairs stretched in an orderly queue down the beach, most of them occupied by bodies liberally basted in suntan oil. Two waiters clad in shorts and Hawaiian shirts passed from chair to chair bearing trays of colorful drinks garnished with wedges of pineapple. A dozen or more heads bobbed about in the shimmering expanse of clear turquoise water stretching to the horizon. A solitary beachcomber strolled along the water’s edge, gentle waves flowing over his feet. Even the seagulls seemed sedate, gliding lazily in the brilliant blue sky. It could scarcely have differed more from the windy, boulder-strewn beach below Pemberley, with its wild surf and churning seas.
William heaved a discontented sigh, wishing that he and Elizabeth were alone on that other beach. “Let’s go for a swim,” he said. Cold water might tame his rebellious body.
“You were in a hurry to get out here,” she said. “Too hot for you on the beach?”
He grunted in response. It had indeed been much too hot.
“I can’t get over the color of the water,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it, so blue and so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom.”
His eyes dropped to her cleavage, visible beneath the surface of the water, and he emitted a soft groan.
“Are you okay?” She stepped closer, her body lightly touching his.
He gripped her shoulders, his frustration nearing the boiling point. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are in that bikini? Or what it’s doing to me?”
She frowned. “Are you mad at me for wearing it?”
“Of course not.” He paused and shook his head, trying to clear his desire-fogged brain. It was a hopeless enterprise. “It’s just that I haven’t thought about anything but you all morning. You’re looking at a starving man.”
“I know,” she sighed, reaching out to touch his chest. “It seemed like it took forever for you to get here this afternoon.”
“I wanted to make love to you again and again this morning, maybe talk you into canceling your plans with your aunt and staying with me. But when I woke up, you were gone.” He traced a finger down her neck and along her shoulders. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
A wave rippled past, and she grabbed his waist to steady herself. “I explained in my note. You were exhausted, and you needed to sleep.”
“No. I needed to be in your arms.” His hands slipped under the water, reaching for her.
“William, not here,” she whispered, shivering.
“Nobody can see,” he murmured, continuing to caress her. “Not as long as the water is covering us.” He thought of the other men by the pool and the way their covetous eyes had followed her. But she was his, and his alone. His desire surged to new levels, his body aching with ferocious need.
“Someone might—” But he stopped her protest with his mouth and she surrendered, her lips parting under his as she leaned against him.
He groaned against her mouth. “I want you, Lizzy, now.”
A deep sigh shuddered through his body as he thudded back to reality. His desire for her was getting out of control, and he needed to calm down for both their sakes. He lowered his head to kiss her, gently this time, tasting salt water on her lips.
But apparently his tender kiss hadn’t communicated his calming-down strategy. “I want you, too,” she whispered in his ear.
Voices sounded behind them. An elderly couple, still several feet away, floated along while conversing in soft voices.
Elizabeth spoke in an urgent whisper. “Let’s go to my room.”
“You read my mind,” he said, kissing her, exulting in the fact that she had made the offer instead of waiting for him to make the suggestion.