William had never heard such ear-splitting silence. It was as though each sound threatened to shatter the room into a million fragments. The smallest sounds—raindrops pelting the windows, a slight creak of his chair when he propped his ankle on his opposite knee, even the regular whisper of his breathing—seemed to thunder in his ears.
He glanced up from the book in his hand; he had been pretending to read it for the past thirty minutes without turning a page. Elizabeth stood at the window across the room, her unyielding back turned to him.
“I suppose you’re not ready to talk yet,” she had remarked in a tight voice as he unlocked the door to their suite about an hour before.
He hadn’t been ready, not then, and he had said so. Not with his heart pounding and bile clogging his throat at the memory of George Wickham rising out of the darkness like a malevolent ghost.
“Fine.” She had stalked into the bathroom, returning with her dark hair in glorious disarray over her shoulders, a plush white hotel bathrobe belted around her waist. They had not spoken since.
He ought to have been calmer by now, better able to analyze, to weigh options, to assess risks. But the silence seemed to shove at him from all sides, driving him deeper inside himself.
Why was she angry with him? It made no sense. He hadn’t stood alone on a shadowy terrace with her worst enemy. He hadn’t danced with a woman intent on raining down misery on her family. He hadn’t exposed her vulnerable sister to a treacherous man, one possessing combustible secrets.
Elizabeth hadn’t realized Wickham’s connection to the Darcys until minutes before William had found them together on the terrace. She had made this clear, speaking mostly to Rose, on the way back to the hotel. But why had she been out there with Wickham in the first place, regardless of his identity? It was a question William would not ask her. As his fiancée, she deserved his trust. He nodded to himself, impressed with his generosity and his clear-headed thinking.
But she seemed determined to snatch this hard-won high ground from his grasp. If she expected him to placate her, she was destined for disappointment. He would not apologize when he had done nothing wrong. He could be magnanimous, but he would not grovel.
He closed his book with a loud thump and flinched, but the room didn’t explode, nor did Elizabeth move. Leaning forward, he buried his head in his hands. He longed to feel smooth piano keys beneath his fingers, to immerse himself in plaintive melodies. But the suite had no piano, and the baby grand in the hotel lounge sat in the middle of a festive New Year’s Eve celebration.
“This is ridiculous.”
His head snapped up at the sound of her voice. He stared at her, waiting for her to continue.
“Look, I know you need time to process things, but it’s crazy for us to spend the night prowling around here, not talking.”
“I agree.” He leaned back in his chair.
She crossed the room, stopping only a few feet from his chair. “Good. Then you can start by explaining why you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you.”
She huffed air through her nostrils and her eyes narrowed. “I’m not stupid, William. Obviously you’re upset with me. Why else would you have treated me like I was poisonous at the Kennedy Center? You managed to be polite enough to everyone else.”
He grimaced and gusted a deep sigh before he answered. So that was the problem. “I admit, I could have handled myself better.”
She let out a quick, harsh laugh. “You think?”
“But you have to understand—”
“What I understand is that I deserved better from you.”
“Seeing Wickham was a terrible shock.”
“Why did that translate into treating me like the enemy?”
“Because you were consorting with the enemy.” The words popped out, surprising him. Perhaps he hadn’t forgiven her as completely as he thought.
Her eyes flared. “What did you say?”
“Never mind,” he stammered, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Too late,” she snapped. “Do you blame me for introducing Georgie to Wickham?”
“No. You didn’t know who he was.”
“That’s right. When you talked about him, you never mentioned his name. Until he said he knew your mother, I didn’t suspect a thing. How was I to guess that he was her ….” She frowned and bit her lip, continuing in a subdued tone. “That he had a history with the family.”
“As I said, it isn’t your fault that they met.”
“Then what is my fault?”
All right. If she wanted to know, he would tell her. “I can’t help but wonder why you spent so much time with him.”
“Is that what this is about?” She planted her hands on her hips. “You’re going to sit there and tell me that I can’t talk to another man at a party?”
William rose to his feet, claiming the height advantage. “You did more than just talk.” He was fast discovering that he wasn’t feeling particularly magnanimous after all. “You danced with him, and the way I hear it, more than a little flirting was involved.”
“Stop right there.” Her expression was so fierce that he took an involuntary step backward, almost falling into the chair behind him. “Who told you that? Did Georgie say something?”
“She was just being loyal to her brother, when she saw you with another man. But it doesn’t matter,” he grumbled.
“It most certainly does.” Her nostrils flared. “Don’t I deserve a little trust?”
He felt the ground shifting beneath his feet, and he struggled for a firmer foothold. “You were alone with him on the terrace.”
“We weren’t alone. And besides, I went out there looking for you, after I found out who he was.”
So much for finding more solid ground. He pressed his lips together.
She heaved a loud sigh. “Look,” she said in a calmer tone, “I know it’s sort of a twisted compliment that you’re jealous. But it also suggests that you don’t trust me. That’s the part I don’t like.”
“It’s not you. It’s him. You have no idea how cunning and deceitful he is.”
She studied him for a moment. “Are you afraid I took the things he said about you seriously? Kind of like you did when Georgie apparently said I was flirting?”
“That’s different,” he retorted, lifting his chin.
“I don’t see why. Wickham wants to hurt you, and Georgie—” Her eyes flicked upward and she shrugged. “Well, she may not be trying to hurt me, but she wouldn’t shed any tears if I vanished, never to be seen again.”
William tried to reject the notion that Georgiana would intentionally interfere with his love life, but then he remembered his own feelings when Wickham had begun to absorb so much of his mother’s attention. Although William had never done anything overt to discredit Wickham, he had sometimes sought to curtail their time alone by seeking help he didn’t need with his homework, or by asking his mother to critique his interpretation of a newly-learned Chopin nocturne.
“Now,” Elizabeth continued, “as to why I was on the terrace with Wickham, he followed me there after I left him on the dance floor.” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I danced with him. One dance, or one and a half, I guess, to big band music.”
“What did he do to you to make you leave him on the dance floor?” William asked, his voice tight with fury. If Wickham had made a pass at Elizabeth ….
“Nothing like you’re thinking,” she replied, and for a moment her voice was gentle. “He behaved perfectly when it came to the actual dancing. But he said some nasty things about you, and I got angry and stormed off.”
William’s jaw tightened. He had expected Wickham to speak out against him, but that didn’t make the news welcome. Then he envisioned the fire leaping from Elizabeth’s eyes as she yanked out of Wickham’s grasp, and he couldn’t help but smile. “He didn’t know who he was dealing with.”
“No, he didn’t.” Their eyes met, and a reluctant smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “I love you, Will. Right this minute I’m not sure why, but I do. Have a little faith in me, okay?”
“I’m sorry. I behaved badly and you deserved better.” He reached for her hand.
“No,” she said, stepping back. “I’m not ready to kiss and make up yet.”
“Fair enough. Just say when.”
“I want to make sure I understand why you were so cold to me at the party, after you found me on the terrace. Was it because I was out there with Wickham? Or because I was out there with a man?”
“Because it was Wickham. I do trust you, Lizzy, but I saw you with him and—” He shuddered. “It was my worst nightmare. He destroys everything he touches.”
She twisted the belt of her bathrobe around one hand. Her diamond ring flashed on her finger, picking up the light from the lamp beside him. “He did a number on you, didn’t he? More than you’ve told me.”
“It’s mostly what he did—and tried to do—to my mother.”
“Which would be even worse, because you’re so protective of the women in your life.” She sighed. “But why did you push me away? I know you weren’t ready to talk about it, but I could have held your hand, or just stood by you and let you know you weren’t alone.”
He sighed. “I suppose I blamed you for being with him. I know it isn’t logical, but there you were, with the person I hate most in the world.”
She glanced at the floor, and when she looked up she was pale. “It was as if I’d gone out there and found you chatting with Michael.”
“I guess so.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.” She nodded. “I might have reacted the same way. At first, anyway.”
“But if it had been Michael, and I’d known who he was, you wouldn’t have found us chatting. You would have found me dangling him over the terrace railing by one leg.”
She giggled, and a hint of color returned to her face. “When.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “When,” she repeated, with exaggerated enunciation.
“Oh!” Grinning, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. “It’s about time.” He bent down and kissed her gently.
“I never meant to bring George Wickham back into your life,” she said softly, her hands smoothing the front of his tuxedo shirt.
“I know.” He kissed her again. “It’s not your fault, cara.” This time he meant it.
“Maybe it is, a little. If I’d refused to talk to him at the rehearsal, none of this would have happened. I mentioned my fiancé right away, so he’d know that flirting wasn’t going to get him anywhere, but I kept on chatting with him, and he kept on flirting. I could have done more to discourage him.”
“He’s a master manipulator. If he wanted to talk to you, he was going to find a way. He may have known who you were.”
“I don’t think so. He seemed genuinely surprised when he figured out that we were engaged. And then he followed me onto the terrace to beg me not to blow his cover. I think if we leave him alone, he’ll just go away.”
He tightened his arms around her and she melted against him, resting her head on his shoulder. With a world-weary sigh, he closed his eyes and let the tension drain from his body. Silence filled the room again, but this time it enveloped him like a warm blanket.
Then a distinctive gurgle emanated from the vicinity of his stomach. Elizabeth giggled and glanced down. “I guess I don’t need to ask if you’re hungry.”
He grinned ruefully. “I didn’t eat much dinner.” He usually ate sparingly before performing.
She extricated herself from his arms, crossed the room, and retrieved a binder from the night table drawer. “Thank goodness for round-the-clock room service.”
After their food arrived, they lounged on the sofa, nibbling snacks from the room service cart. Elizabeth described meeting George Wickham that afternoon at the rehearsal and explained her desire to correct the unknown man’s bad opinion of William.
“So, where was I?” she asked, after pausing to pop a french fry into her mouth.
“You were deciding how best to defend my honor, while you danced with him.” He over-enunciated the last five words.
She scowled as she swallowed her food. “Seriously, when we go to fund-raisers and parties, won’t I be expected to circulate? I can’t just stand there clutching your arm all evening.”
“That’s true,” he said with a sigh.
“But I take it you’d prefer that I not dance with anybody under the age of sixty?”
“Are you kidding?” He smirked. “Sometimes the older men are the worst.”
“Yeah, but everyone will know that I’m so madly in love with my husband that there’s no point in even trying.” She leaned over and kissed him.
“Now that’s what I like to hear,” he drawled.
“Oh, rats! I forgot and fed the ego!”
He shrugged. “Too late to take it back. Would you like some more wine?”
“Yes, please. An excellent choice, by the way. I like how it enhances the natural earthiness of the potatoes.”
He refilled their glasses and sipped his wine, grinning. Elizabeth had teased him about ordering wine with their decidedly un-gourmet snacks.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I defended you, but his remarks about you kept getting worse. Just as I was deciding to leave him on the dance floor, he figured out that you were my fiancé. He followed me to the terrace and begged me not to tell you that I’d seen him.”
“Was that when you figured out that he was the man I’d told you about?”
“Not at first. But he started telling me about meeting your mother through the foundation, and that’s when I realized who he was.” She shook her head. “He’s terribly jealous of you, partly because you got the career he wanted and thought he deserved.”
William snorted. “That’s hogwash. I heard him play a few times back then. Not much talent, and not enough dedication to make it as a soloist.”
“He was also jealous because your mother loved you so much, though he claimed that you were the jealous one.”
“There’s some truth in that. I was used to being her main, even her only, priority. Wickham and I had one thing in common, a deep mutual dislike.”
“And you both loved your mother.”
“Did he tell you that?” William clenched his jaw. “That bastard never loved anyone but himself. Did he tell you that he stole money from the foundation?”
“He swore that you invented the whole thing to discredit him. But I know you wouldn’t do that.”
Long-suppressed rage welled up, setting William’s heart pounding and pulling his muscles as tight as piano strings. “He embezzled thousands of dollars from the foundation while Mamma was alive, and he would have gone on doing it after she died if Gran hadn’t fired him. When we discovered the evidence about five years later—he’d done a good job of covering his tracks—he blackmailed us to keep it quiet.”
Her eyes widened in horror. “He blackmailed you?”
“He told me that if we filed charges, he’d write a tell-all book about his affair with Mamma. He threatened to include plenty of intimate details, most of which I’m sure he would have invented.”
“Was that the last time you saw him, until tonight?”
“No wonder you were so upset. If I’d had any idea ….” She took his hand and they sat in silence. The rain had turned to ice, tapping against the window in a chaotic rhythm.
“We replaced the stolen funds and treated it as a painful but important lesson. Since then I’ve never even considered hiring an executive director because there’s no one I trust enough.”
“But there are plenty of honest people involved in non-profit work. Wickham was just a bad choice.”
He shook his head. “I can’t take the risk.”
They fell silent again, picking at the remains of their late-night feast, and William began to relax. Elizabeth had been right earlier; Wickham had no reason to want their paths to continue to cross. As for Georgiana, the story of the embezzlement, without mention of the blackmail attempt, should serve to quell her curiosity. Wickham would retreat into the past again, where he belonged.
When they were done eating, William wheeled the cart out into the hall and they moved into the bedroom, sitting on the bed. “This whole thing with the blackmail attempt still amazes me,” she said. “He seemed polite and friendly—a little full of himself, maybe, but nothing unusual. Just ask Aunt Maddie. She thought he was charming. Everything seemed normal, except for the nasty things he said about you.”
“Which you certainly took in stride,” William remarked wryly, “right up to the point where you walked off the dance floor.”
“At first I just figured you’d done something to tick off the backstage workers.” She shrugged and wrinkled her nose.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “You say that as though it’s an everyday occurrence.”
“Maybe not everyday, but it wouldn’t exactly shock me to hear that you got high-handed with the help.”
“So this is your true opinion of me? How flattering.” He said the words in a joking tone, but underneath he felt a sting.
“You poor thing,” she murmured in sham sympathy. She slid her hand over his bare chest between the lapels of his robe—and yanked at a wisp of chest hair.
“Ouch!” he yelped, pulling away. “So we’re playing rough, are we?” He grabbed her by the waist and tickled her. Shrieking, she tried to escape, but he rolled on top of her and grabbed her hands to prevent further attacks. He realized his mistake and released her at once—such behavior could cause a flashback—but he was relieved to see her eyes gleam at him in a good-humored challenge.
He reached out to smooth her hair. Her lips were slightly parted and seemed to demand to be kissed. But as he lowered his head, she rolled sideways, throwing him off balance. And then she pounced. He offered token resistance, but soon allowed her to pin him to the mattress.
She loomed over him, her breathing rapid, her hair cascading down around her face. Her robe had slipped open during their wrestling match, and his eyes locked on the delicious curves framed by the robe’s lapels. A shudder rippled through him, and his skin prickled with electric heat.
“Well,” he rumbled, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, “now that you have me, what are you going to do with me?”
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” she purred as her hands slipped inside his robe.
Elizabeth squinted at the clock. She performed as quick a mental calculation as her languid state would allow, and then sat up in bed.
“Where are you going?” William reached out for her.
“I’ll be right back. I want to call Jane.” Elizabeth evaded his grasp and crawled out of bed. She wrapped herself in her discarded robe and crossed the room to fetch her purse.
“At this hour?”
“It’s almost midnight in California, and she’s at that party at the Clift Hotel. I want to wish her a happy New Year.” She pulled her phone from her purse and perched on the edge of the bed, giving him a speculative look. “You know,” she said softly, “this is a chance for you to improve on your performance earlier.”
He struggled into a half-upright position, resting on his elbows. “I beg your pardon?”
His air of injured dignity might have earned her sympathy had it not been so comical. “Not that performance,” she replied, laughing. She leaned over and kissed him. “That was lovely.” She traced an abstract design on his chest with one finger.
He exhaled loudly. “You had me worried for a minute.” His face clouded over again. “In that case, you must be talking about the Gershwin.”
“Of course not! You were the best performer all night, which is why you got that long, loud standing ovation.” She grinned and ruffled his hair. “I can’t even believe that you tricked me into feeding the ego twice inside of thirty seconds. Enough of that, until morning at least.”
“So my lovemaking and my music are fine. In that case, what were you talking about?”
“The pathetic way you wished me a happy New Year back at the party.”
“Oh. That.” He flopped onto his back, his expression that of a small boy who had just been sent to bed without his dinner. The boyish impression was magnified when he pulled the covers up around his neck.
“I was thinking that we could count down to midnight again on California time, and you could redeem yourself.”
“As long as it happens soon,” he mumbled. “I’m not going to be awake much longer.”
“You really know how to sweep a girl back on her feet.” Elizabeth eyed the clock on the night table. “Is sixty seconds soon enough?”
His eyes fluttered open, and he hauled himself upright. “I think I can manage that, if it means I don’t have to hear any more about my behavior at the party.”
“Maybe. No promises.”
He grinned at her and shook his head ruefully. Then his smile softened. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“So am I.”
“If I were alone, I’d be sitting in that chair worrying about Wickham. I’d probably have been awake all night, turning it over in my mind.” He cupped her cheek and leaned forward. “That’s what you do for me, cara.”
It was her favorite sort of kiss: leisurely, gentle, almost teasing. It shimmered with quiet contentment, warming a degree at a time until they sighed in blissful unison. His hands cradled her face and then combed gently through her hair, worshipping each curl in its turn.
Finally she raised her head, smiled into his sleepy eyes, and glanced at the clock. “We missed the countdown. It’s 12:01 in California.”
“We didn’t miss anything.” He kissed her again and burrowed under the covers, his eyelids already drifting shut. “Take off that robe and come to bed.”
She tiptoed into the bathroom with her phone. Jane didn’t answer, so Elizabeth left a message. Only then did she notice that she had a message of her own.
She returned to the bedroom a few minutes later and slipped under the covers, snuggling against William. With a sleepy groan, he spooned behind her and draped an arm around her waist.
“Are you awake?” she whispered. “You’ll never guess who showed up at the Clift Hotel tonight.”
His only response was a soft grunt. She smiled to herself. Jane’s news could wait until morning.