“Happy Boxing Day, Miss Lizzy.”
Elizabeth glanced up from her breakfast to see Richard standing at the other end of the table, garbed in a tee shirt, sweatpants, and his usual cocky grin. “Same to you,” she answered. “It looks like you didn’t get William’s message.”
“Yeah, Mrs. R. said the old man stood me up. What’s the deal?”
“He had to leave early for his run. Your grandmother has a meeting with her attorney this morning and she wants William there. He left a message on your cell, and I think also one with your mom.”
“Somehow I managed to miss both messages.” He dropped into the chair beside Elizabeth’s.
“Won’t you join me,” she murmured, flicking a mischievous glance in his direction.
“Don’t mind if I do.” He folded his arms behind his head and leaned back in his chair until its front legs hovered a few inches off the ground. “Gran would shoot me if she saw me disrespecting the furniture this way. I’d get a lecture on how great-great-grandfather William Horatio Albert Milquetoast Darcy imported these chairs from Stiff Upper Lipfordshire, where they were revered as relics from the court of Axelrod the Impotent, the famed Saxon king. Famed mostly for dying without producing an heir, needless to say.”
She giggled. “Not into family history?”
“Not particularly. I mean, yeah, the family goes way back, but to hear Gran tell it you’d think we were royalty.” He cocked his head. “Doesn’t it get on your nerves, too? You’re a down-to-earth kind of girl.”
“I think it’s interesting. But I haven’t been listening to it for as long as you have.”
“Here’s your tea, Richard.” Mrs. Reynolds placed a cup and saucer in front of him, along with a fragile-looking china pot emitting a wisp of steam. “What can I get you for breakfast?”
“You’re a lifesaver, Mrs. R. Two eggs over easy and whole wheat toast.” He winked at Elizabeth. “You know, I’m glad the old man stood me up. Gives me a chance to talk to his lady without him snorting and pawing the ground every time I say something the least bit suggestive.”
“Which you do constantly.” Elizabeth popped a bite of her omelet into her mouth.
“What can I say? You inspire me.”
“Behave yourself, Richard Fitzwilliam, or you’ll have more than just William to answer to.” Mrs. Reynolds patted his shoulder. “You’d better keep an eye on this one, Elizabeth. We never could keep him under control.”
“Which, as we all know, is part of my considerable charm,” Richard called after Mrs. Reynolds, who was already halfway to the kitchen. He filled his teacup, perfuming the air with the faint scent of licorice. “Where’s everybody else?”
“Mrs. Darcy is upstairs,” Elizabeth said. “She was just finishing breakfast when I came down. I haven’t seen Georgie this morning.”
He leaned his elbows on the table, both hands wrapped around his cup. “So, what’s it like, being the promised bride of the heir to the kingdom? This house must be a minefield.”
“It’s a little awkward, but things are fine.”
“A politically correct answer if ever I heard one.” He smirked. “How about the truth? It’s more than a little awkward, right?”
She shrugged. “It’s okay. You and your parents have been here most days, and with everything else going on the time is rushing past. And your grandmother is a good hostess.”
“So everything is hunky-dory. You’re just a blissful little pea in her tailor-made pod.” He skewered her with a less intense version of William’s penetrating stare. “I don’t buy it. C’mon, fess up; you’ll feel all better.”
“Hi, Richard.” Georgiana’s laconic voice sounded from the doorway.
“Good morning, gorgeous.”
Elizabeth greeted Georgiana, who gave a perfunctory response and then asked, “Where’s Will?”
“He’s out running,” Elizabeth replied. “Would you like some breakfast?”
Georgiana executed a long, slow eye-roll. “Why does everyone keep asking me that? I already told Mrs. Reynolds I wasn’t hungry.”
“I was going to ask Will to take me shopping.”
Rose had forbidden Georgiana to leave the house alone, requiring her to recruit a chaperone for any excursion. “He can’t,” Elizabeth said, “not this morning. Your grandmother needs him for a business meeting.”
“Oh.” Georgiana paused for a moment. “What about Aunt Eleanor? Is she home?”
“She’s at the office,” Richard said. “And there’s no way I’m going into any store today, so don’t even bother to ask me.”
“Shopping with you? As if.” Georgiana rolled her eyes again.
“Then it sounds like I’m your only option,” Elizabeth said. “Unless you’d rather stay home.”
Elizabeth hadn’t expected such a blunt question. She decided to answer with equal frankness. “Should I be?”
“No.” Georgiana’s answer was surprisingly firm and businesslike.
“Good. So, what do you say? Want to go?”
Georgiana shrugged. “I guess so. Yeah.”
Elizabeth smiled inwardly. Georgiana had just revealed the depths of her desperation to get out of the house. “The only thing is, we should get moving; I’m meeting a friend for a late lunch. Can you be ready in twenty minutes?”
Georgiana shrugged again and nodded. She turned and loped out of the dining room.
“You’re a good sport,” Richard said. “Shopping with a stir-crazy fifteen-year-old on December twenty-sixth.”
“I need to get to know her somehow. But ….” Elizabeth glanced at Richard. “Is Georgie usually so ….” She paused and licked her lips. “I’m not sure how to say this without sounding unkind.”
“Is she usually so bitchy to William’s girlfriends? Are those the words you’re searching for?”
“You’ve noticed.” Elizabeth set down her fork.
“Hard to miss.”
“William doesn’t see it.” She couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice.
“Yeah. The Little Princess couldn’t possibly be less than perfect.”
“I know she’s being difficult with everyone because she’s upset about her legal troubles, but she puts extra effort into letting me know how much she dislikes me.”
“It’s not really about you. She worships Will; always has. The way it looks to her, you’ve swooped in out of nowhere to steal him away.”
“It probably doesn’t help that your grandmother isn’t sure about me.”
“Good point. Not that Georgie follows Gran’s lead much these days, but she may have gotten the idea that you’re fair game, especially after Thanksgiving.” He shook his head. “I’ve said it before, but I’ve got to say it again. You, my dear future cousin-in-law, have cojones of steel. I’ve rarely enjoyed anything as much as I enjoyed watching you show Catherine de Bourgh how we do things downtown. That was when I knew you could cut it as a Darcy.”
Mrs. Reynolds arrived with Richard’s breakfast, which he attacked with gusto while Elizabeth munched her toast. A stern, dark-eyed man whom Rose had identified as William’s great-grandfather eyed her from within a carved walnut frame. From his expression, he didn’t seem to approve of her table manners.
After a brief silence, she asked, in a deliberately offhand tone, “How is Charlotte?”
“Good, the last time I talked to her.” His words were muffled by a mouthful of eggs.
“Did you call her to wish her a merry Christmas?”
Elizabeth knew that, of course. She had wondered if Richard did, unsure to what extent they had shared personal details. Charlotte didn’t actively practice her faith and rarely spoke about it. “Then did you—”
“Yes, I called to wish her a happy Hanukkah. She called me yesterday with Christmas wishes. Why all the interest in my holiday greetings?”
“I just wondered if you’d talked to her recently.”
“I know what you’re up to. You and Mom and Sonya have convinced yourselves that I’m pining for her. I’m getting tired of the nagging.”
“Well, maybe you should try listening to us. You and Char seem so compatible.”
“Too compatible. That’s what she said, and she was right.”
“Oh?” Elizabeth had heard Charlotte’s opinion on the subject, but she hoped that the less she said, the more Richard would reveal.
“What do you imagine could happen between us? Marriage and happily-ever-after bliss? That’s fine for gooey-eyed romantics like you and Will, but Charlotte and I were born without that gene. We don’t do the whole falling-in-love thing.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
Elizabeth gave him her best stern-teacher stare. “Are you seriously telling me that you didn’t know, the night you were introduced to her, that you’d met your match?”
“I’ll give you that.” His smile seemed tinged with sadness, though her imagination might have conjured the emotion. “It was like meeting myself, but with a nice rack and legs up to here.”
“Then why are the two of you on opposite sides of the continent, missing each other?”
“See, this is where everybody starts over-dramatizing. She’s interviewing at Columbia some time in January and we’ll get together. We’re keeping things casual, because that’s all we’re interested in. But you and Mom won’t be happy unless we’re picking out china patterns.”
“So it didn’t bother you that she turned down your invitation to meet you in Washington for New Year’s?”
Richard pushed his plate away abruptly. “Lizzy, stop trying to fix me. I ain’t broke.”
“You can’t tell me that a steady diet of one-night stands is making you happy. And I’ve heard from more than one person that you haven’t been yourself lately. Why not just admit that you’ve fallen for Char?”
He leaned back in his chair and sighed loudly. “Strictly for the purposes of debate, let’s suppose you’re right, and she’s gotten under my skin. It still takes two, and she’s made it clear that she has no interest in me beyond the occasional weekend fling.”
“She’s only saying that because she’s as scared as you are. I’ve never seen two people so terrified of their feelings. I wish one of you would grow some steel cojones of your own.”
Richard whistled softly. “I give Will credit. He’s got a tigress by the tail. Nothing off-color intended, for a change.”
“Okay, I’m going to stop nagging you. But think about what I’ve said. And, by the way, if Jane were here, she’d be on my side.”
“How is she?”
“I don’t think she’s ever been happier.”
His warm smile suited him better than the smirk he usually wore. “Good. God knows she deserves it. Tell her I said so.”
“I will.” Elizabeth glanced at her watch and then pushed back her chair. “Sorry to desert you, but I’d better get ready for my shopping trip.”
When she came downstairs a few minutes later, she found William at the foot of the steps with Richard. She paused to admire the view. Richard was handsome enough to draw appreciative glances, but it was William who held her rapt attention. No man should be able to exude a lethal dose of sex appeal while damp, disheveled, and unshaven, but William somehow managed the feat.
He glanced up and saw her, delivering the killing blow by unleashing his knee-weakening smile. She gripped the handrail, afraid she might fling herself at him and knock him to the ground.
“It looks like you’re on your way out,” William remarked.
His dark blue tee shirt was emblazoned with a word that couldn’t have been more appropriate: “Manly.” Heedless of Richard’s presence, she trailed a hand across the gold letters. “How was your run?”
“Good. I covered some extra ground today, without my aging boat anchor to slow me down.”
Richard cleared his throat loudly and shook his head. “No respect. I’m the Rodney Dangerfield of this family.”
“But you wear it well,” Elizabeth teased.
“As long as you think so, my love.” Richard kissed her cheek. “And now, much as I’d like to stand here and let Will insult me some more, I’m going to get on with my day.” He punched William gently on the shoulder and strode away. But at the living room doorway, he turned back. “I almost forgot. Want to have dinner tonight? Mom and Dad are having some college friends over, and I can’t sit through three hours of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock nostalgia. The worst is when they start singing protest songs.” He made a face and shuddered.
“I’m afraid we already have plans,” Elizabeth replied, earning her a surprised glance from William. “But I’m sorry to desert you in your hour of need.”
“It’s okay. I’ll find some other way to occupy myself. See you later.”
“We have plans?” William asked, as soon as Richard passed into the living room and out of earshot.
“I thought we should go out to dinner, just the two of us.”
“I like the way you think.” He rested his hands on her waist. “Nothing against Richard, but I’d much rather spend a quiet evening with you. Shall I make us reservations somewhere?”
She shook her head. “Just meet me here at six. I’ll take care of everything.”
“You’re sexy when you take charge,” he murmured, bending his head. “I’m on my way upstairs to take a shower. Want to join me?” His lips brushed hers in a teasing caress.
A loud sigh and footsteps behind them announced Georgiana’s arrival. Elizabeth stepped away from William and forced a smile onto her face. “Ready to go, Georgie?”
“Where are you going?” William glanced between the two of them.
“Shopping.” Elizabeth grinned at him. “Want to come along?”
His eyes rested on Georgiana, a deep frown creasing his brow. “Did you check this with Gran? Don’t forget, you’re grounded.”
Georgiana’s sigh was designed to be audible in the house next door. “She said I could go out with one of you.”
“But I don’t think she was referring to shopping.”
“I talked to her,” Elizabeth said, patting William’s arm. “She said it was fine.” She smiled apologetically at Georgiana. “The only problem is, she said you’re not allowed to buy anything. So we’ll have to stick to browsing.”
Georgiana sighed for a third time, this one the loudest of all, and rolled her eyes. “Can we go now?”
“Is Allen driving you?” William asked.
Elizabeth shook her head. “We can walk. And there are cabs and buses and subways if we need them.” She kissed William’s cheek. “We’ll see you later.”
Georgiana swept past them and into the living room, her long-legged stride oddly evocative of William’s. Elizabeth followed, noting for the first time what was slung over Georgiana’s thin shoulders: the new pink purse, Elizabeth’s Christmas gift. It was a small thing, one brick toppled from Georgiana’s sturdy wall of resistance, but it was a start. Elizabeth smiled to herself as she hurried to catch up.
Instead of meeting him at the townhouse as prearranged, Elizabeth had called with a change of itinerary. Her afternoon plans with Sally had apparently run overtime. “Sally works at the W Hotel at Union Square,” she had said. “She has to go to work soon, and I thought I’d tag along. Why don’t you meet me in the lobby bar? We can have a glass of wine and discuss our plans for dinner.”
He had his own ideas about dinner, fueled by meeting her at a hotel: room service. He made a snap decision and approached the registration desk, walking away a few minutes later with a key card tucked into his breast pocket.
When she appeared at last, his jaw dropped practically to his knees. She wore a clinging black dress, its hemline much higher, and its neckline much lower, than anything he had ever seen her wear. Her hair floated over her shoulders, falling in a cascade of loose curls that begged for his touch. Even her walk communicated heightened sensuality, her hips swaying in a provocative dance that made his heart stutter. As for the lush curves revealed by the plunging neckline, he could scarcely force his eyes upward to her face.
He smiled as she approached and began to rise to his feet, but she sashayed past, acknowledging him only with a flirtatious sidelong glance that sent a hot shudder through his body. His hand rose involuntarily to pat his breast pocket, ensuring that the key card still rested there. She paused at the bar and spoke to a bartender he belatedly recognized as Sally. He expected Elizabeth to return with two glasses of wine, but she left the bar empty-handed and chose a sofa in a shadowy corner of the room.
Was she angry? She couldn’t be; she had sounded affectionate and enthusiastic on the phone only an hour before, and the look she had given him on the way past had been a clear invitation to ravish her. Perhaps she thought her secluded corner would allow for more intimate conversation. But in that case, why not suggest that he join her there? Why walk past as though he were a stranger—one she found deserving of a come-hither stare, but a stranger all the same?
He would never figure it out if he just sat there, so he crossed the room and stood in front of her. Her smile welcomed him, but with a lack of recognition that puzzled him. “Hello,” she said softly, the faint lilt of a question in her voice.
“Lizzy, what are you—”
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
He licked his lips and studied her expression. People didn’t develop amnesia for no reason. Was this a test?
“You don’t look familiar. And if I’d met you,” she paused and looked him up and down like a jungle cat eyeing its next meal, “I would have remembered.”
He felt as though he had walked into a play at the start of the second act. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m Elizabeth Bennet,” she said gently. “And you are?”
“William Darcy,” he answered, disoriented but glad she had asked a question he knew how to answer.
“Nice to meet you, William.” She nodded her head at the empty space beside her on the sofa. “Won’t you join me?”
Another question he could handle. “Yes, thank you.” The sofa was small, barely large enough to accommodate two. Ordinarily he would have draped his arm around her shoulders, but under the circumstances he thought it best to assume nothing.
“Do you live in New York, William?”
“Yes.” He would play along, for now. “What about you?”
“I live in San Francisco. I’m in town for the holidays, visiting a … friend.”
“I see.” He hesitated, at a loss for a safe remark. At last he found one. “May I buy you a drink?”
“That would be nice. White wine, please.”
He attracted the attention of a cocktail waitress and ordered a bottle of wine, selecting a German Riesling he knew Elizabeth would enjoy. She acknowledged the choice with a brief twitch of her lips.
When they were alone again, she shifted at an angle to face him. In this position, her knees brushed against his leg, and he involuntarily glanced downward. She had spectacular legs, though he rarely gave them the attention they deserved, too engrossed with the rest of her.
“Tell me more about yourself, William.”
He blinked and dragged his eyes from her legs to her face. “I’m a musician. A pianist.”
“I’m a musician, too. A singer.” And a good actress: she delivered the line with a hint of genuine surprise.
“I thought so.” He found himself warming to her peculiar game. “I knew, the moment I saw you, that we had a great deal in common.”
“I didn’t know I was in the presence of a mind reader.” Her eyes emitted a sultry heat that warmed his skin like the tropical sun: inviting, yet dangerous in its intensity. “I guess I’d better be careful what I’m thinking.”
“Why? Are you in the habit of having wicked thoughts?”
“Not usually,” she said in a low voice. Her eyes devoured him. “But with the right inspiration ….”
Now that his initial confusion had faded, his body had begun to respond to her nearness and to the waves of frank sensuality she exuded. This wasn’t his Elizabeth, whose passions were sometimes held in check by her inhibitions. But he had seen tantalizing glimpses of this woman before. She had appeared briefly in the bathtub at the Four Seasons the evening after Thanksgiving, and he had watched her on stage more than once singing “Naughty Baby.” To spend a night with this provocative stranger who possessed the face, the body, and the voice of the woman he loved—he swallowed hard as heat surged through him.
They chatted about the weather, the holiday season, and the superficial details of their lives—details already well known, yet unfamiliar. But below that inconsequential surface, more volatile forces simmered. Her eyes glittered when they met his, seeming to promise the fulfillment of his deepest fantasies.
He shifted his leg sideways until it rubbed against hers, and sparks seemed to shoot up his leg. She must have felt it too; she drew in a quick breath and her eyes widened. Her hand brushed his thigh in a fleeting caress. His muscles twitched, begging for more, and he barely restrained a groan. Had her touch been an accident? No, he hadn’t imagined the wicked glint in her eye or the brief upward curve of her mouth. He brushed her hair off her shoulder and trailed a finger down her bare arm. Her answering shiver gratified him.
Their wine arrived, and he sampled it without any awareness of its taste. Elizabeth leaned forward to reach for her glass, and his eyes dove of their own accord into the neckline of her dress. Again, the blend of the strange and the familiar heated his blood. He knew the softness of her skin and its sweet flower scent. And yet his Elizabeth, with her blushes and her modesty, would never offer up this view to a stranger. He touched the key card in his pocket again.
“What should we toast to?” she asked.
He raised his eyes to her face and saw a gleam of amusement there. His fascination with her cleavage hadn’t gone unnoticed. “To … new friends,” he croaked, his mouth oddly parched.
“To new friends,” she repeated softly, touching her glass to his. They sipped their wine, eyes locked together, the air around them vibrating with electric heat.
“Speaking of friends,” he heard himself say, “whoever you’re in town to visit must be a woman.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because no man in his right mind would let you come here alone, looking like this.”
“You think I’m in some kind of danger?”
You’re in danger of being eaten alive, by me. He shook his head slowly. “No. He’d be the one in danger—of losing you. But a man foolish enough to let you out of his sight doesn’t deserve to keep you.”
“Maybe he trusts me. Maybe he knows how much I love him, and that I’ll always be faithful to him.” She paused and sipped her wine. “No matter how tempting I might find someone else,” she added, her smile sending an unmistakable message.
“Then he’s a lucky guy.” He stretched his arm across the sofa back and caressed her bare shoulder, pausing to twine a dark curl around his finger.
She shifted closer to him on the sofa, and her skirt rode up further, revealing a new expanse of her smooth thighs. How soon before he could take her upstairs? He closed his eyes and imagined those legs wrapped around his hips. Would now be too soon?
“But he’s strictly hypothetical.”
“What?” William opened his eyes. He had lost the conversational thread, absorbed in a vision of naked, entwined limbs amid a tangle of sheets.
“The man … the one you said was a fool. He’s a hypothetical creation. I never said I was in town to visit a man. As you said, I might be here to see a female friend, maybe a college roommate.”
“That would change things.”
“Oh?” She eyed him over the rim of her wine glass, one eyebrow arched.
He nodded, but instead of responding to her implied question he asked his own. “I assume you’re staying with this mysterious friend while you’re in town?”
“Yes. But my friend has plans tonight, and if I went back there too early it might interfere.”
“Then I hope you’ll spend the evening with me.”
“I’d like that.”
“Perhaps we could go somewhere for dinner.”
“But first I need to go up to my room.”
“Your room?” Her eyes widened. “I thought you lived in Manhattan.”
“I do,” he said, gratified to have the upper hand at last. “But I thought it might be … convenient to have a room here tonight.”
She took a long sip of her wine, her eyes glowing with sensual heat over the rim of the glass. “Are the rooms nice?”
He leaned closer, inhaling her familiar jasmine scent. “Why don’t you come upstairs with me and see for yourself?” he murmured, his mouth descending toward hers an inch at a time.
Mindful of their public location, he intended to merely brush his lips against hers, but the soft kiss was too exquisite to end quickly. By the time he reluctantly drew back, he saw the naked hunger in her eyes. “Let’s go,” she whispered.