Elizabeth lay still as she floated up to consciousness, her mind balanced on the fringes between dreams and reality. The dream faded, leaving behind jumbled impressions of a series of claustrophobic rooms crammed with people and, in the funhouse illogic of the dream world, strewn with dozens of pairs of shoes—most of them jewel-encrusted platform heels.
Nothing could have supplied a more marked contrast to the spacious room that swam into her bleary view. A sharp pain stabbed at her forehead, and she shut her eyes to shield her fragile system from the bright surroundings. Merry Christmas, Lizzy.
Elizabeth rarely drank enough to feel tipsy, much less completely drunk. A glass of wine with dinner, a beer or two at a party, or an oversized margarita (or two) at a Mexican restaurant was plenty. But last night after returning from Christmas Eve services, Richard had decided that Mrs. Reynolds’s eggnog needed more zip. In his lexicon, “zip” apparently meant “gallons of bourbon and brandy.” Elizabeth hadn’t realized until too late just how much zip he had added.
She pushed herself upright, massaging her throbbing forehead with careful fingers. Staying in bed wasn’t an option. There were Christmas greetings to exchange and gifts to open. She fervently hoped that none of the morning’s activities would involve food.
Two aspirin tablets and a long shower revived her somewhat, though her head still felt about four sizes too large. A breakfast tray awaited her in the sitting room. She couldn’t look at the basket of muffins without shuddering, but she sank onto a plush sofa and sipped the coffee, sighing as its warmth oozed through her body.
Footsteps echoed on the marble stairs. A moment later William entered the sitting room, looking disgustingly bright-eyed and, of course, flawlessly groomed. “Merry Christmas, Lizzy.”
She winced as his greeting assaulted her ears. “Same to you.” Her voice sounded rusty and feeble.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
“Not great,” she whispered, shaking her head gingerly. Too much movement, and her brain might explode.
“I was afraid of that,” he said in a softer voice. “I told you to stick to one glass of Richard’s special eggnog.” He leaned down to kiss the top of her head before joining her on the sofa. How could every hair follicle hurt from a simple kiss?
She sighed and leaned her aching head against his shoulder. “Please tell me I didn’t make a fool of myself in front of Georgie and your grandmother.”
“They went to bed early. And, anyway, you didn’t make a fool of yourself. You were just less … inhibited than usual.”
She could hear the amusement in his voice. “Yeah, I remember that much.”
He cleared his throat. “Ah.”
“Thank you for being such a gentleman.”
“It wasn’t easy.” He stroked her hair. “You were very tempting, and you seemed unusually willing. It wasn’t easy to say good night and leave you alone.”
With a little groan, she burrowed closer, burying her face in his soft v-neck sweater. Their good night kiss at the threshold of her bedroom had threatened to set the door on fire. “I’m sorry.”
“I kept reminding myself that you’d never been under the influence of Richard’s eggnog before. If you’d been sober, I knew you’d have been warding me off with a garlic necklace and a cross if necessary.”
Would I? During her three days at the townhouse, it had become increasingly difficult not to sneak into William’s room, or pull him into hers, and give instinct free reign.
“Did you take something for your head?” he asked gently.
She sat up, blinking hard, and nodded. “And the coffee is helping.”
“You should drink lots of water. In fact, let me get you some now.”
He took the spare coffee cup from the tray and headed for the bathroom.
“I never expected you to be an expert on hangover cures,” she said when he returned.
He shrugged and handed her the cup. “I’m Richard Fitzwilliam’s cousin.”
She drank the water and then rested her head on his shoulder again. A drowsy peace descended, and at last her headache receded. She heard his voice, as though from a distance. “Are you awake?”
“Sort of,” she mumbled.
“If you feel up to it, we should go downstairs. Gran and Georgie are waiting. I came up here to check on you.”
Returning to bed and sleeping until noon sounded more enticing, but she allowed William to help her to her feet.
“Let’s take the elevator,” he said.
“Bless you.” Descending three flights of steps would involve more jostling than her fragile head could handle.
“And we’ll stop by the kitchen and get you a big glass of water.”
Downstairs in the library, Rose greeted her politely but in her usual cool tone. Georgiana’s greeting was similarly unenthusiastic. Elizabeth thought of the noisy throng around the Christmas tree at home, its crooked trunk and homemade ornaments giving it a homey charm that the impeccably manicured giant in the library could only envy. But at that moment William grasped her hand and gave her a warm, private smile, and her homesickness faded.
He led her to the sofa and then crossed the room to the tree, selecting a package for each person. The small card on Elizabeth’s package read, “Merry Christmas from Rose.” She opened the box to reveal a sweater in a deep shade of cranberry. “Thank you,” she said, stroking the soft cashmere. “It’s beautiful.”
The others opened their gifts, and then William delivered another round of packages. Georgiana had purchased Elizabeth a scarf she had admired during their post-Thanksgiving shopping trip. William, who had attempted to buy her every item she had noticed that day, had probably made that purchase.
He delivered the final group of gifts, placing hers in her hand with a flourish. But her attention was arrested by Rose, who was removing the red foil paper from the package on her lap. Elizabeth swallowed, mentally crossing her fingers.
Rose gazed at the framed photo, at first in confusion and then with dawning comprehension. “This is ….” She glanced up at Elizabeth.
“It’s a photo of the Palm Court Room at the Plaza from the early 1940s. I found it at an antique shop in the Village the other day. After the story you told me about going there with your bridesmaids, I thought you might like to have it.”
Rose stared at the photo. She opened her mouth, as though preparing to speak, but then closed it again.
Elizabeth couldn’t seem to stop talking. She had worried about the gift ever since buying it. “I know the frame looks a little battered. Supposedly it’s an antique gilt frame, and I know you appreciate antiques, so I thought I’d leave it alone. But if you want a new frame ….”
“Thank you,” Rose said quietly, still studying the photo. “This is exactly as I remember the Palm Court that day.” She met Elizabeth’s gaze. “This was very thoughtful of you.”
Georgiana had been quietly opening her gift from Elizabeth during this exchange. She lifted a small pink backpack-style purse from a box, frowning slightly.
“I saw at Thanksgiving that you had a purse a bit like this, but in brown,” Elizabeth explained. “This particular brand is only sold in San Francisco, and the neon-colored ones—green and orange and hot pink—are popular with college students out there right now; they’re everywhere on campus. I thought maybe you could be the trend-setter here in New York.”
Georgiana’s lips twitched. “Thanks.” She made eye contact with Elizabeth only briefly, and her voice and expression conveyed no emotion. But Elizabeth noticed that Georgiana kept the purse on her lap, examining its thin straps and opening the outside zipper pockets.
“Open yours,” William urged her.
“No, you first.”
With an indulgent smile he tore into the wrappings. “Lizzy,” he breathed softly, studying a framed map.
“Absolutely.” He leaned toward her. “Thank you, cara.”
She turned her face up to his. Their kiss lasted a second or two too long, considering their audience, but in that moment she didn’t care, and apparently neither did he.
“Now, open yours,” he said.
She tilted her head, eyeing him skeptically. “We agreed that my New Year’s Eve dress would be my Christmas present.”
“You didn’t seriously expect that I wasn’t going to give you anything on Christmas Day.”
Georgiana snorted. “As if. He drove me crazy helping him pick it out.”
Elizabeth removed the wrappings, discovering a red box with the Cartier logo. “Sorry it’s not from Tiffany’s,” William said with a grin. “if it had been, you could have given the box to Sally.”
“We just won’t tell her,” Elizabeth retorted, opening the lid. She gasped, nearly blinded by the contents.
“You needed some jewelry to wear with your new dress.”
She couldn’t take her eyes off the brilliant diamond choker. It was even more beautiful than the ones she had ogled at Tiffany’s the day before. Like the necklaces on display at the store, it was entirely impractical for daily use, but as William’s wife, she suspected she would have opportunities to wear it. She lifted it with shaking fingers, only then noticing the matching earrings. “I … I don’t know what to say.”
“‘Thank you’ is usually a safe bet,” he said gently, his eyes warm with affection. “Would you like to try it on?”
“Definitely. But first ….” She touched his cheek, guiding his face to hers for a kiss. “Thank you,” she murmured. “You know, you’re spoiling me.”
“Get used to it.”
Elizabeth wiped a tear from her eye as she trotted down to the third floor. She had just gotten off the phone with Jane, who had managed to organize the Bennets and Phillipses to produce a rousing, if out-of-tune, rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But her tears weren’t a response to their musical crimes. Her father had borrowed the phone from Jane to offer his own greeting. Despite his whimsical tone, when he had confessed missing her she had felt a sharp wave of homesickness.
Shortly after Robert, Eleanor, and Richard departed for home, Elizabeth had excused herself from the library to place her phone call. She was surprised, when arriving at the third-floor landing, to hear William playing the piano in his sitting room. She poked her head through the doorway with some trepidation, but he gave her a warm smile and stopped playing at once. “How is your family?” he asked.
“Everybody’s fine, but it was kind of chaotic. Kitty and Lydia insisted on cooking dinner, and I’m sure you can imagine how that turned out.”
“Did it involve a call to the Fire Department?”
“No, but I think it came close. In the end, Dad cooked hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. Not your typical Christmas feast, but it sounded like everybody had fun.” She crossed the room and stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders. “I thought you’d still be downstairs.”
“Gran said she was tired. She asked me to say goodnight to you. And Georgie went upstairs right after you did. So I figured I’d come up here and practice while you were on the phone; I haven’t practiced enough the past few days.” He leaned back against her, emitting a little hum of satisfaction when she bent down to kiss his cheek. “I’ve been playing Chopin études. I should play a couple more before I stop.”
”May I stay and listen, or will I bother you?”
“You won’t bother me at all. Please stay.”
She remained in her place behind him, in order to watch over his shoulder. Although he played for her willingly whenever she asked, for him to show enthusiasm for an audience during a practice session was unusual. She supposed that the novelty of her presence in his sitting room accounted for his benevolent mood. First, he played Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude1, a piece she had heard often before, but it was a different experience to watch his hands—his left, in particular--flying across the keys. When he finished, she touched his shoulders gently but said nothing, sensing that a silent response fit better into a practice session.
Then he played a piece with which she was unfamiliar2. His right hand moved continually through lightning-fast figures, up and down the piano, while the left hand brought out a disquieting melody in a much different pattern. When he was done, he turned and smiled at her, which seemed to invite a comment.
“I’ve never heard that one,” she said. “You made it look easy, but I could tell how difficult it is.”
“Most people think it’s one of Chopin’s most difficult pieces. Supposedly Horowitz said that this one made his arms fall off; of course that was some major hyperbole, but he never recorded it. Its nickname is ‘Winter Wind.’”
“That makes sense. I could easily imagine leaves or snowflakes flying through the air.”
He was quiet for a moment, his eyes on the piano keys. Then he turned back to her again. “Did you have a good Christmas?”
She leaned forward to kiss him. “Our first Christmas together.”
“I have one more gift for you.”
“Wait here.” He jumped up from the piano bench and left the room.
Elizabeth settled into the new chair positioned near the fireplace. My chair, in this house. A shiver flew down her spine. The prospect of marrying William didn’t intimidate her, but living in this house was a different matter.
He returned with a white box tied in a fluffy red bow. “It’s really a present for me, not for you,” he remarked cryptically, settling himself in his armchair.
She tussled with the bow, finally subduing it and lifting the box’s lid. The floor-length, low-cut black silk and lace nightgown inside the box explained the speculative glint in his eye.
“It’s beautiful.” She hopped to her feet and perched on the arm of his chair, leaning over to kiss him. “Not exactly something I can wear to the grocery store, though.”
“I should say not. I’m the only one who gets to see you in it.” The glint turned into a full-blown wolfish gleam. “Will you model it for me?”
“I’ll be happy to. As soon as we get to Washington.”
He huffed a loud sigh. “I’m tired of waiting.”
“It’s only a few more days.” She combed her fingers through his hair, patting a curl into place.
He tugged at her waist, disturbing her balance enough to pull her down onto his lap. “I’ve imagined you sitting here with me more times than I can count.”
“Oh?” She squirmed into a sideways position, her legs dangling over the chair arm.
“We’ve done some interesting things in this chair. Just last night I couldn’t sleep, and I came in here, and—” His hands began to roam. “Let me show you.”
“Will, I don’t think this is a good—”
William, who was obviously done talking, silenced her words with his mouth. He knew her weaknesses by now and he put the knowledge to use, his kisses leaving her defenses in shreds, his gentle hands exploring, stroking, cajoling.
Soon his shirt, the buttons undone, hung from his shoulders. Her sluggish brain issued a feeble warning, one her body ignored. But then she heard a creaking noise in the hall.
“What was that?” She sprang upright and shot a frightened glance at the door.
“I didn’t hear anything,” he mumbled.
“Will, the door isn’t locked.”
“Then let’s lock it,” he whispered.
She hopped off his lap, her brain clawing its way back into control. “No, we shouldn’t do this. Not here.”
His eyes were like a window into a blazing furnace. “Then come to bed with me, cara. We’ve waited long enough.”
“But I heard a noise in the hall.”
“It’s an old house. It makes noises.” He rose to his feet and approached her, moving slowly like a predator at night, his eyes smoky with desire. “We’re alone. Everyone else is upstairs asleep. Let’s go to my bedroom and do what we’re both dying to do.” His arms closed around her, and he lowered his head, his lips inches away. “You want this too, Lizzy,” he murmured, the husky note in his voice sending a shiver along her spine. “I know you do.”
She did; it was undeniable. She was on the verge of surrendering when she heard the noise again, and it doused her desire like a shower of ice cubes. She wrenched herself from his grasp. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Lizzy …” He stared at her, his chest heaving, his eyes dark and almost feral.
“It’s this house. There are too many people.” Too many strangers, some of them lying in wait for the smallest misstep, but she didn’t want to upset him further by saying so.
“You don’t need to remind me that they’re upstairs for the night. I know that. And I know there’s almost no chance that they’d see or hear anything. But what if they did?” She grimaced. “The minute I start thinking about it, I can’t think about anything else.”
A muscle twitched in his cheek, and he began to button his shirt.
She took a step toward him. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t understand. You’re not inhibited like I am when it comes to sex.”
“I thought we were making progress in that area.”
“We are,” she answered quickly, grateful for his use of the word “we.” “But privacy is important.” She shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry you’re stuck with such a prude.”
His eyes softened, and he stepped forward and drew her into his arms. “You’re not a prude. I guess if I take a step back and view it objectively, I can see why you want to be extra careful. But I can’t wait four more days to make love to you.” He kissed her, his lips moving slowly, hungrily, until dizzy heat spiraled through her. “So let’s think of a solution” he whispered, pausing to press a kiss to the base of her throat, “before I lose my mind.”
“I wonder how much privacy we’d have in adjoining rooms at the nuthouse?”
He shook his head, matching her grin. “I’d buy out the entire floor if necessary. Now kiss me goodnight, before they come to fit me for my straitjacket.”
“I should have known a rich guy like you would get a custom-tailored straitjacket,” she murmured, looping her arms around his neck. “I bet they’d just give me one off the rack.”