Elizabeth smiled her thanks as she accepted a glass of wine from Allen, who was tending bar in the library. So far, the Darcys’ Christmas party had been more pleasant than she had expected. Rose had proved a gracious hostess, repeatedly introducing Elizabeth as William’s fiancée without even a hint of indigestion, until Elizabeth had begun to wonder if finishing schools taught advanced acting classes. Or perhaps Rose believed that anything less than full public support would imply criticism of William’s judgment. Rose had even cast an approving glance over Elizabeth’s black strapless dress and the upswept hairdo she had managed with emergency assistance from Mrs. Reynolds.
Though anything would look good when accessorized by this ring. Elizabeth couldn’t stop staring in awe at her left hand. She didn’t need to be told that William, true to his upbringing, had invested more in the quality of the diamonds than in their size. Not that the center stone was small by any means, but neither was it flashy or vulgar.
In other words, Caroline Bingley would turn up her nose at it, aside from what it represented. Caroline had probably heard about William’s engagement by now. I wonder if she’s in sackcloth and ashes, weeping and rending her garments. Elizabeth snickered.
A statuesque brunette wearing a cream silk pantsuit and a haughty expression approached the bar. She acknowledged Elizabeth with a polite nod that ended in a curious glance at the ring. Elizabeth had been the object of plenty of curious glances, along with envious ones, especially whenever William stood beside her.
The brunette collected her glass of wine and returned to two other women in designer dresses, both sporting designer noses to match. To Elizabeth’s anxious eye each one looked at least six feet tall and scarcely over a hundred pounds, with flawlessly sculpted eyebrows registering a permanent look of surprise.
Elizabeth, temporarily lacking a conversational partner, didn’t want to be seen standing alone, nor did she want to force her way into a circle of friends who might find a stranger’s interruption unwelcome. She scanned the horizon for another guest standing alone, or for an awkward group in need of a fresh infusion of conversational energy, but she saw no one. William stood across the room with Robert and two men Rose had introduced as directors of the family’s company. Judging from their serious expressions, they were talking business, something her approach would disrupt.
Seeking a temporary occupation, she wandered over to the food table, ordering herself to stay away from the cream puffs. She had already devoured three, all filled with Mrs. Reynolds’s legendary chocolate mousse. That meant penance in the form of a long, brisk walk in the park tomorrow. She wandered over to study an antique map of England displayed in an ornate gilt frame. Snatches of a stage-whispered conversation drifted over from the gaggle of stylish women standing nearby.
“So what do you think, Fiona? Is he serious about this, or is she just the flavor of the month?”
“Now, be fair. He doesn’t change partners that often. He was with me for almost a year.”
“All right, then, flavor of the year. But I suppose longevity isn’t the issue. He didn’t propose to you.”
“What do you suppose the attraction is?” mused a third, her voice higher-pitched than the others.
“She’s pretty enough, and she seems pleasant.” This came from Fiona, the brunette from the bar.
“Such a ringing endorsement: ‘pretty enough and seems pleasant.’ Well, no wonder he proposed to a nobody from—where was it?”
“California. San Francisco, I think,” the high-pitched voice reported. “They say she’s a musician. A singer.”
“And that would appeal to him,” Fiona said. “His mother was an opera singer. He didn’t talk about her much, but I don’t think he ever really got over her death.”
“A mama’s boy? I would never have guessed it, with that strong jaw and those bedroom eyes.” A theatrical sigh followed this remark. “And so all this time, he was looking for a musician? A shame you never took singing lessons, Fiona. That might have clinched it.”
“What size do you think the diamond is?” the highest voice chirped. “Two carats, maybe two and a half?”
“Not much more, and such a plain setting. Utterly uninspiring. Though I suppose it was enough to impress her.”
“But have you gotten a good look at it?” Fiona asked. “I’m sure the stones must be flawless. And the setting is what I would have expected him to choose. He’s not the flashy type.”
Another woman, her short cap of auburn hair styled in a spiky cut Elizabeth had studied with envy, approached the group. “I’ve been doing a bit of research.”
“Oh, but you’re much too late. We know everything. She’s a penniless musician from California.”
“A music teacher. Not quite the same thing. You know what they say. Those who can, do. Those who can’t ….” Soft giggles followed that remark.
“But she may have other talents. He wouldn’t be the first man who was led to the altar by his—”
“Taylor!” Fiona hissed. “That’s enough.”
“Besides, that can’t be the explanation,” the auburn-haired woman purred. “He doesn’t have to get married to get plenty of that. I mean, seriously, what woman in this room wouldn’t jump him, given the opportunity? Not to mention that at least one of us already has.”
General laughter followed this remark, punctuated by a high-pitched giggle. An involuntary glance showed them all gazing in William’s direction. He looked delectable in his new black suit with satin lapels, a black tie, and a crisp white shirt. Elizabeth, with assistance from Georgiana, had coerced him into buying this contemporary version of formal wear during their Thanksgiving shopping expedition, though she had doubted he would ever wear it. He also wore her birthday gift, the onyx and mother of pearl cufflinks.
He glanced up, perhaps feeling the hungry eyes crawling over his frame. As Elizabeth watched, he noticed the quartet of gossipers first. Then he locked eyes with her, and his lips curved into a sweet, breath-robbing smile. Eat your hearts out, you smug, superior ….
“Sex on legs,” Taylor sighed. “So tell us, Fiona. Does he look as good out of his clothes as in them?”
Fiona, perhaps finally noticing Elizabeth’s presence nearby, whispered an inaudible reply that provoked nervous laughter from the others.
Elizabeth’s heart pounded and her fingers tightened around her wine glass. She hated the idea that at least one woman in this room, and perhaps others, had lain in his arms. Fiona—polished, elegant Fiona—had known the warmth of his lips on her body. She had clutched his strong shoulders and teased the dark hairs sprinkled over his chest, perhaps even tracing his scar with a gentle finger. She had gazed into his dark eyes, gone opaque with the sweet agony of possession. She had trembled at his rough cry, the one often torn from his throat at the moment of release. And she had shuddered beneath him, transported to ecstasy by the strength and heat of his—
Enough. She glanced at her ring, and then touched her beloved emerald pendant, two reminders that William was hers now. Besides, he might have shared his body, but never his heart. That, she knew he had given only to her.
With a burst of frenetic energy, she strode across the room to join Georgiana, who was studying the glittering twenty-foot Christmas tree in front of the patio doors. “Hi, Georgie. How’s it going?”
“Okay.” Georgiana’s sigh suggested otherwise.
“Nobody your age here, huh?”
Georgiana shrugged. “There never is. Usually Will and Richard talk to me, but they’re mad at me. So is Gran.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Georgiana asked, rolling her eyes. “They’re scared that everybody will find out I was arrested.”
Elizabeth couldn’t honestly deny Georgiana’s assertion, but she felt an obligation to defend William. “I’m sure they’d prefer to keep it quiet, but that’s mostly for your sake.”
Georgiana’s only response was a skeptical glance and a soft snort.
“Okay, then, it’s partly for your sake. And William isn’t mad at you.”
“He is, too. Gran made him come home from California because of me.”
“She didn’t make him. He came back because he was worried about you, and he wanted to help.”
“Whatever.” Georgiana sighed and stared at the tree.
Elizabeth decided to try a lighter subject. “He looks good in that suit we nagged him into buying, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah. But he always looks good. Is that why you first noticed him? Because he’s such a hunk?”
“It was because of his piano playing, though it didn’t hurt that he’s so handsome.” Elizabeth continued quickly, afraid of sounding shallow. “But then I got to know him and found out how special he is.”
“All my friends have major crushes on him. And I guess you know that at least three women he used to go out with are here.”
“No, I didn’t.” Elizabeth’s stomach clenched. She knew about one, and that was enough.
“Fiona Wright is over there, the one with the dark hair. And then …” Georgiana craned her neck, scanning the room.
“Thanks, but I’d rather not know.”
“Are you jealous?”
Elizabeth told herself that she was imagining the hopeful note in Georgiana’s voice. “It’s hard to explain. I’d just rather not think about his ex-girlfriends.”
“Because he had sex with them?”
“Georgie!” Elizabeth glanced around them. That Georgiana had said it at all was shocking enough, but she had also said it loudly enough to be overheard by anyone nearby.
“I’m not supposed to know. I guess Gran thinks it would stunt my growth or something if I knew that my brother has sex sometimes. But when he goes on a date and doesn’t get home till after breakfast, it’s like, duh. And then Gran was all trying to make excuses at Thanksgiving when he stayed at the hotel with you. She actually told me he was sleeping on the sofa in your room!” She scoffed and rolled her eyes again.
Elizabeth smiled weakly and focused on the tree.
“Let me see your ring,” Georgiana said after a lengthy pause.
Elizabeth extended her hand. “He just gave it to me this afternoon, at the little café where we had our first date.”
“It’s pretty. Did you pick it, or did Will?”
“I thought so. It’s like what Gran always talks about. Restrained elegance; top quality, but nothing too flashy. I bet you wanted a bigger one.”
Elizabeth ignored the implicit suggestion that she lacked the taste to appreciate restrained elegance. “No, I think it’s perfect.”
Georgiana studied the tree, reaching out to touch one of the gleaming silver ornaments. “I guess Will is going to move to California now, since he’s marrying you.”
“No, we’re going to live in New York. Didn’t he tell you that I’m moving back here?”
“He never tells me anything. He didn’t even tell me he was engaged till yesterday. But I already knew. I heard Gran talking about the wedding.”
“Oh? We haven’t had a chance to talk about that yet.”
“She wants it to be in New York. And she wants it to be, like, a year from now, so there’s time to plan everything. Will didn’t like that. He said he wasn’t waiting a year.”
“I agree with him.” Elizabeth exhaled loudly before she could stop herself. Perhaps Rose was betting that the relationship wouldn’t survive a long engagement.
“Well, don’t blame me,” Georgiana huffed. “She said it. I didn’t.”
“Here are my two girls.” William stepped between Elizabeth and Georgiana and wrapped an arm around each of their shoulders. “Are you talking about me?” he asked, grinning at Elizabeth.
“What an ego. Always thinking you’re the center of the universe.” Elizabeth doubted it was proper decorum, but she kissed his smooth-shaven cheek anyway.
“As long as I’m the center of your universe.” His grin broadened. “Gran wants me to play for the guests, and I need an invisible page turner. Any idea where I could find one?”
Georgiana wrinkled her nose. “Is that supposed to be funny? It sounds so lame.”
“It’s kind of an inside joke,” Elizabeth said.
“Whatever. I’m going to ask Gran if I can go up to my room now.”
“Don’t you want to stay and hear me play?” William asked.
“I already heard it about a hundred times. You were practicing yesterday for, like, hours.”
William watched her go, his cheerful mood deflated. “She used to love to hear me play.”
“I’m sure she still does,” Elizabeth said, twining her fingers with his. “She’s just confused and unhappy, and she’s taking it out on everyone. Besides, think how dull a party like this must be for a girl her age.”
After a brief conference with Rose, Georgiana left the room without a backward glance. William led Elizabeth to the piano. “Sit down,” he said, seating himself and patting the bench beside him.
“No, I’ll just stand over here.”
“Lizzy, tonight we announced our engagement. There’s nothing wrong with us sharing the spotlight.”
“Well … okay.” She joined him on the bench.
The guests, noticing William’s movement to the piano, clustered nearby, and the buzz of conversation subsided to a soft hum. After flinging a sly wink at Elizabeth, he began to play the rambunctious medley of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Let it Snow”1 with which he had closed his recital at the conservatory. She studied the faces of the guests as he played. Some of the listeners tapped a foot or swayed slightly to the beat, and most wore smiles that broadened as the music drove toward an energetic peak. Even Rose seemed to be enjoying the music.
At the conclusion of the piece, the guests clamored for more. He launched into a lush, pensive rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”2 His music dissolved her insecurities about Fiona, her annoyance at Georgiana’s petty slights, even her worries about Rose’s plans for the wedding. She glanced at her ring and then at the man beside her. At least for tonight, nothing else mattered.
The impromptu concert signaled the end of the evening, as Rose had no doubt intended. The guests drifted away until only the family remained. Robert and Eleanor stood with Rose, inspecting the Christmas tree and talking in soft voices. William lounged on the sofa with Elizabeth, his arm resting around her shoulders. Richard sagged in a nearby armchair, a half-empty glass of scotch dangling from his hand. For the past several minutes he had regaled Elizabeth with tales of his recent exploits in Barbados, while she tried to understand his unusual perspective.
“I admit,” she said, “I can see how it could be exciting to pick up a stranger in a bar for a one-night stand, especially in a situation where you’re both far from home and you know you’ll never see each other again. But when that makes up the bulk of your love life and you’re doing it all the time, what about the risks?”
“I’m careful. No glove, no love.”
She considered it pointless to mention the high failure rate of condoms, so she tried another approach. “What if the woman turns out to be a homicidal maniac?”
“Well, yeah,” Richard said. “That would put a damper on the festivities. But it’s all part of the package. The thrill of the unknown, yadda yadda.”
“So it’s all about living on the razor’s edge?” She shook her head. “Why don’t you try something safer, like hang-gliding?”
He chuckled. “You know, I’ve always wanted to try that. But mostly I’m into sports of the indoor persuasion.”
“I don’t know. All that bed-hopping sounds like a lonely way to live.” She watched Richard’s reaction carefully, but he simply shrugged and sipped his scotch.
“Amen.” William tightened his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “You should try a relationship some time.”
Richard snorted. “That settling-down stuff is fine for you lovebirds. I’m not cut out for it.”
Elizabeth wanted to ask when he and Charlotte had last spoken, but at that moment Eleanor called from across the room, “Are you ready to go, Richard, or are you going to get home on your own?”
“No, I’m coming.” He rose to his feet, as did William and Elizabeth. “Does your cousin-to-be get a good night kiss?” he asked.
“You bet.” She stepped forward and kissed his cheek.
“Not quite what I had in mind, but the old man here would probably pummel me into jelly if I tried for anything more.”
“Count on it,” William retorted.
The Fitzwilliams departed, and Rose stepped into the kitchen for a word with Mrs. Reynolds. William escorted Elizabeth to the fourth floor and through the central sitting area to her bedroom door.
“So I guess we’re official,” she said. She reached up to smooth his hair.
“Did you enjoy yourself tonight?”
“More than I thought I would.”
“And everyone was nice to you?”
“Oh, yes. Especially Fiona Wright.” She raised an eyebrow.
She didn’t have long to wait for his pained wince. “Who told you about Fiona?”
“Georgie did, but I already knew.”
“I overheard Fiona talking with some friends. Almost a year, you were with her?”
“It wasn’t anything like it is with us. She’s intelligent and interested in the arts, and … it was convenient. For both of us.”
“I understand from Georgie that she wasn’t your only ex in attendance.”
“No,” he said with a sigh. “And I’m sure that makes it seem like I was …” He sighed, wearing a pained expression.
“The Don Juan of the Upper East Side?”
He nodded, his eyes in full basset-hound mode.
She allowed him to suffer for only a few seconds, and then she shrugged. “These are the people you know. Where else were you going to find girlfriends? By picking up strangers, like Richard does? Besides, I can’t argue with your taste. Fiona was the classiest woman I met tonight.”
“And when it comes to my taste, let’s not forget that I also chose you.”
“Excellent point!” She touched his cheek. “But I admit, it was a bit of a shock to hear one woman ask another what you look like naked.”
“Oh, God.” He closed his eyes and shook his head, sighing loudly.
She nodded. “It’s partly my fault. If I didn’t want to hear them gossip about us, I should have walked away. Yeah, right, as though I would have done that.”
“I’m sorry, cara. I should have asked Gran not to invite Fiona and … the others. But their parents and grandparents are her friends, and they’re on the guest list every year.”
Elizabeth wondered if Rose had invited them as a test of her grace under pressure. “No, I can hear it now, if they’d been snubbed. ‘His fiancée must be insecure; she can’t handle having his old girlfriends around.’ It’s a no-win situation.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You know it means nothing, right? Fiona is still a friend, but the rest of our relationship was over long ago.”
“I think it’s good that you were able to stay friends with an ex-girlfriend. It must mean the break-up wasn’t too bad.”
“We never formally broke up; we just drifted apart. That’s usually what happens. I generally stay on good terms with the women I’ve … spent time with.”
“Hmm. You, friends with a bevy of beautiful women, ‘cause I’m sure they were all beautiful, right? I take it back. That doesn’t sound so good after all.”
“I said ‘on good terms,’ not ‘collecting a harem.’ Besides, you have lots of male friends.”
“Not ex-boyfriends, though.” She paused. “If you and I had broken up for good, I don’t think we could have been friends.”
“We couldn’t.” The intensity in his eyes made her shiver. “It would have hurt too much to see you, to be reminded of how much I loved you. But I wasn’t in love with Fiona, or any of the others.”
“Were they in love with you?”
“I don’t think so. I always made it clear that I wasn’t interested in anything serious.” He lowered his head to whisper in her ear. “Can we forget about Fiona? I’m far more interested in you.”
She looped her arms around his neck and pressed close to him. “Good idea.”
“I was so proud of you tonight,” he murmured. “Everyone kept telling me how beautiful and charming you were, and how much they enjoyed talking to you. Even Gran was impressed.”
His lips traveled along her bare shoulder and then lower, toward the neckline of her strapless dress. “I’ve wanted to do this all night,” he muttered between kisses.
His hands stroked their way to her back, and she thought she felt him tug at her zipper. “Will.” She clutched his shoulders and tried to push him away. “You can’t take off my dress. Someone could see us.”
“Then let’s go into your bedroom, where we won’t be disturbed.”
“William, no. Your grandmother’s room is right upstairs from mine. She might hear something.”
He sighed. “You have more excuses than any woman I’ve ever met.” But he removed his hand from the doorknob.
“So I guess we’d better say good night.”
“Good night?” He shook his head. “I forgot to tell you my plan, didn’t I?”
He trailed his index finger slowly along her shoulder and up her neck, igniting a shivery path of sparks. “We’ll wait till Gran and the Reynoldses go upstairs; it won’t be long. Then you can come down to my room. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“But … No, I can’t.” She shuddered at the thought of Rose catching her tiptoeing down the stairs.
“Of course you can. No one will see you.”
“You don’t know that,” she whispered fiercely. “And someone could hear us.”
“Lizzy, I have the third floor to myself. The other bedrooms are on the fifth and sixth floors, except yours, and you’ll be with me. We’ll have plenty of privacy.”
“We can’t be sure they won’t hear us. What if someone decides to get a snack or a cup of tea in the middle of the night? Or what if the sound-proofing isn’t as good as you think? I heard you playing the piano when I was napping this morning. I can’t believe the idea doesn’t bother you.”
“We’ll be quiet. It might even be exciting, to try not to make any noise.” He bent down and began kissing her neck again.
She squirmed away from him as a fresh set of humiliating scenarios jittered through her brain. “What about the morning, when I have to go back to my room? What if someone sees me running around in my bathrobe? Or what if someone goes looking for me early in the morning and I’m not in my room?”
He shrugged, as though he had anticipated this objection. “No problem. We can set an alarm early, before anyone else is up.”
“How early? I bet Mrs. Reynolds gets up before dawn.”
“Then what would you suggest?”
“That you kiss me good night and go down to your room, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Out of the question.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “Lizzy, we’ve been apart too much lately. Now, finally, we’re together, and my ring is on your finger. How can you expect me to sleep alone, knowing you’re just one floor above me?”
“Your grandmother expects us to behave properly, and I’m sure she’s watching to see what we do.”
“And it’s improper for me to want to wake up with my arms around the woman I’m going to marry?”
“By her standards, yes. As you know perfectly well.”
“But some things are more important. Like this.” He pressed her against the door, his heated gaze burning into hers. Then he captured her head in his hands and kissed her thoroughly, expertly, ravishing her mouth until her lips tingled and her body throbbed. “I’m starving for you,” he rasped. “And I’m not just talking about making love. I want you to be the last thing I see at night, and the first thing in the morning. I’ve spent too many nights dreaming about you and then waking up alone.”
His lips descended to devour hers again, and his hand slipped between their bodies to caress her through her chiffon dress. He pressed against her, his body as hard and unyielding as the door behind her. Heat flooded her, flaming rivers surging through her veins. Only he could put out the fire. Only he could send her hurtling through the universe of shuddering delight he had taught her to crave.
“Just say yes, cara. We’ll go down to my room and make love all night, till we can’t move. I’ve got a supply of candles and rose petals, and silk sheets on the bed.” His breath warmed her cheek. “No other woman has ever shared that bed with me, cara. Please, say yes, and be the first. The first, and the only one, for the rest of our lives.”
He stared down at her, his eyes twin pools of heat, so deep they were almost black. She opened her mouth to say the word those eyes compelled her to say, her resistance shredded by his skillful assault. He was right; they had spent too much time apart. Perhaps they could be quiet. Perhaps she could tiptoe back to her room in the pre-dawn hours. Perhaps—
“Elizabeth? Are you—” Mrs. Reynolds’s words were cut off by a sharp indrawn breath. “Oh, dear, I’m so sorry!”
William took a step backward, but he kept his back to Mrs. Reynolds. Elizabeth pushed past him and raced after the housekeeper, who was trotting through the sitting room toward the staircase as though pursued by baying hounds. “Mrs. Reynolds, please, wait.”
Mrs. Reynolds’s cheeks flushed. “Please forgive me, dear. I never meant to intrude.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” Elizabeth said in as steady a voice as she could manage. “William was just saying good night. He’ll be leaving in a minute.”
“I was just coming up to see if you needed anything.” The pink-cheeked housekeeper shook her head. “I suppose we’re going to have to make some adjustments. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a young couple living in this house.”
Elizabeth couldn’t quite meet Mrs. Reynolds’s gaze. “Thank you for checking on me. I have everything I need for tonight.”
“All right, dear. I’ll say good night and be on my way. And please tell William how sorry I am for the intrusion. By the way, I’m the last one to head upstairs, so the house should be quiet until morning.”
Elizabeth almost laughed at this blatant “the coast is clear” announcement. After Mrs. Reynolds left, she turned back and found William behind her, wearing a resigned expression.
“If I know you,” he said softly, “there’s no way you’re going to come down to my room tonight. Not after that.”
She shook her head. “It was a perfect illustration of the problem.”
“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?” He reached for her.
“Not a chance,” she said, eluding his grasp. “That was more effective than a shower of ice.”
“Not for me.” He sighed. “I’m not going to get any sleep, and it’s your fault. I’m going to be tortured by visions of you lying one floor above me in your bed, all soft and warm and sweet.”
“I’m sorry.” She stepped forward and rested her hands on his chest. “I know this isn’t easy, but once we get to Washington—”
“Washington?” He practically shouted the word. Then he pressed his lips tightly together and continued in a tight whisper. “That’s a week from now. I can’t wait till then.”
“Sure you can. You were patient for months.”
“That was different,” he muttered, slipping his arms around her. “Back then I didn’t know how incredible we were going to be together.”
Her body cried out in agreement, but she refused to listen. “Poor William,” she murmured. She kissed him gently, but he took control and turned the kiss into a soul-melting embrace. She wasn’t sure how she managed it, but somehow she found the discipline to step out of his arms and skewer him with a stern gaze. “Now go.”
“Oh, all right,” he grumbled. “But if you change your mind, you know where I’ll be. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, too frustrated to sleep.” He drew her back into his arms. “Did I mention the rose petals?”
“Yes.” She kissed the tip of his nose. “Get out of here before I kick your butt down those stairs. And don’t think I won’t do it.”
He released her, his expression a perfect blend of annoyance and amusement. “I don’t know what possessed me to fall in love with a woman who doesn’t have a shred of respect for me.”
“You knew you needed someone to keep you in line.”
He stalked off without a backward glance. Once he was gone, she shook her head and chuckled softly to herself. Marriage to William might be many things, but it would never be dull.