Charlotte Lucas couldn’t remember the last time she had stayed home on New Year’s Eve.
It wasn’t for lack of options; she’d had three parties to choose from. Jane and Charles had invited her to his band’s swanky bash at the Clift Hotel. Her next-door neighbors had issued an invitation as well; judging from the noise, they had attracted a jovial crowd to their apartment. She could also have joined a group of her Berkeley friends at a grad student’s apartment a few blocks away.
A bottle of Johnny Walker Black, her planned donation to the third party’s bar, had languished on the kitchen counter all evening, until at 11:45 she liberated it from its brown paper bag. “How about if you and I ring in the New Year together, sweetheart?” she suggested in a cheesy imitation of Humphrey Bogart.
Drinking alone on New Year’s Eve. It didn’t get much more pathetic than that. And Johnny Walker Black wasn’t even her favorite scotch anymore; her palate had become more discriminating over the past few months. Not that this stopped her from draining her glass. After all, antisocial party poopers couldn’t be choosers.
Midnight came and went; she heard the cheers and the raucous chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” coming from next door and lifted her glass in a solitary toast.
She poured another helping of scotch and saluted the bottle. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Then she wandered into the living room and stood in front of her bookcase, idly scanning the spines of her books. She pulled an art book off the top shelf and flipped to her favorite page. Michelangelo’s David. Male, decorative, and unable to speak. It didn’t get much better than that.
As she returned the book to its place, she knocked a paperback to the floor. Baseball and Philosophy, a misfit among her books on art, architecture, and design. She rescued it and carried it to the sofa, opening to a dog-eared page toward the back of the book marking the chapter, “The Ethics of the Intentional Walk.”
But she couldn’t concentrate, not with “YMCA” by the Village People vibrating through the walls with seismic force. The floors shook as well from the stomping of dozens of feet, and a chorus of inebriated voices bawled, “YMCA! It’s fun to stay at the YMCA!”
Charlotte shut the book with a sardonic shake of her head. Apparently she was the only person in the state of California who wasn’t celebrating—or, at least, the only one under the age of sixty-five. All she needed was a crocheted shawl around her shoulders and seven or eight cats at her feet. What the hell is wrong with me?
She didn’t like the image that swam into her thoughts—a male form, perhaps not quite up to Michelangelo’s standards but plenty decorative all the same, and finished off with a pair of eyes permanently etched with a mocking expression. And while he wasn’t silent, when he spoke it was usually worth hearing.
No. Richard had nothing to do with this. Elizabeth kept nagging about him, trying to turn a casual fling into something more. Recently she had even gotten Jane into the act. No wonder he came to mind so readily. And the baseball book was another reminder. He had given it to her in Phoenix, the weekend of the World Series. “It’s one of my favorite books,” he had explained. “I want you to read it so we can discuss it.”
It was true; she missed him. Beneath his cynical banter and love of innuendo, she had discovered a brilliant, multi-faceted intellect. He could talk about politics, philosophy, sports, and popular culture with equal skill. They liked many of the same movies and restaurants, and even enjoyed the same scotch, once he had introduced her to his favorites. He had even taken an interest in her research, which was Charlotte’s acid test for men.
And in bed? Free for the first time to be completely herself, with no need to conceal the depth and breadth of her appetites, she had wallowed in so much pleasure that it seemed decadent in retrospect. Paradoxically, she hated him for it. He had set the bar so high that no other man could measure up.
Within a few days of meeting him, she had realized a dizzying truth: here was a man she could learn to love. She had always been grateful for her immunity to love, imagining herself inoculated against it at birth by some divine physician. As she had watched one friend after another descend into the lunacy that love visits on its victims, she had nodded with smug satisfaction. It was unsettling to find that, like Achilles, she had a dangerous chink of vulnerability.
But despite this newfound weakness, she knew she wasn’t cut out for marriage and babies and all the other things her friends seemed to want. And even if she were, she pitied the woman who tried to domesticate Richard Fitzwilliam.
Elizabeth didn’t understand. She kept insisting that Richard “had feelings” for Charlotte. What an idiotic phrase! Everyone had feelings. Besides, Charlotte already knew that Richard liked her, probably more than was good for either of them. Why else would he have invited her to spend New Year’s Eve in Washington with his parents in attendance?
But liking and loving weren’t the same thing. Elizabeth, wrapped in her romantic dream, couldn’t see that. Richard would never love just one woman; in a sense he loved all women equally. Above all, he wanted to surround himself with as many women as possible at all times.
Charlotte’s own philosophy, until now, hadn’t been much different: all men in moderation. But she feared that now, given her newfound vulnerability, she might gradually turn into a cliché: the delusional woman in love with the bachelor playboy. Take tonight, for example. He wasn’t home alone with a bottle of scotch, listening to other people dance to a campy disco song. He probably had a woman on each arm, and another on his—
She jumped to her feet and stalked into her bedroom. Ten minutes later, she emerged wearing her tightest jeans, a silky white blouse, and her favorite chunky silver earrings. It was too late to drive to the city for the Clift Hotel party, but she could at least join the throng next door. If necessary, she would even sing along with “Macho Man,” which was certain to roll to the top of the playlist soon. Better that than to sit home, swilling scotch and self-pity. She yanked her apartment door open, stepped into the hall, and froze.
Richard stood in the hallway with her next-door neighbor, Greg, who was swaying as though buffeted by irregular gusts of wind.
“I thought I knew her apartment number,” Richard was saying, “but once I got up here I wasn’t sure.”
His trademark mocking smile curled his lips. “Never mind,” he said to Greg. “Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother.” Greg raised a blue plastic cup in an unsteady salute. “Stop by the party later if you want.”
Richard strode toward her, stopping just inches away. “Hello there.”
“What are you doing here?”
“You know,” he said, reaching up to rub the back of his neck, “I’m not entirely sure.” He glanced at her apartment door. “May I come in?”
She nodded and led the way into her living room. “Do you want a drink?”
“You’re asking me that question?”
“I’m afraid this isn’t up to your standards,” she remarked as she handed him a glass of scotch. He accepted the glass but otherwise stood still, watching her.
“Why don’t you take off your coat and sit down,” she suggested, watching him with keen interest and more than a little surprise. The Richard Fitzwilliam she knew didn’t wait for permission to make himself at home.
“Right. Thanks.” He draped his coat over a chair and dropped onto the sofa. After a moment’s hesitation, she joined him.
They sipped their drinks, darting awkward glances at each other. Charlotte slid her hand along her futon sofa’s black and white slipcover. The futon was her oldest piece of furniture, and her favorite. But it was time for some new decorative pillows. Maybe red this time. Or gold, which might go better with the drapes. She had no idea why she had chosen this moment to mentally redecorate her apartment.
Richard cleared his throat. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this quiet in my life.”
That made two of them. “I didn’t know you were going to be in town for New Year’s.”
“Neither did I.”
“I don’t understand.”
He licked his lips and studied his glass of scotch. “This must be how Will feels sometimes. Poor bastard.” He drained his glass in two gulps and set it on the table. “As of six o’clock tonight I was at one of my favorite spots in Soho, getting an early start celebrating the new year.”
“And you were seized by a sudden urge to eat bad airline food?”
“You know, I’m trying to be moderately serious here.”
Richard, being serious? His behavior couldn’t have surprised her more had he pulled a sombrero from his pocket and done the Mexican Hat Dance in her living room.
“I was sitting there, scanning the crowd for prospects, and it struck me that I’d sat at that exact table the year before. Another year older, and everything was exactly the same.”
“I had the impression that you were happy with yourself. And in that case, isn’t ‘exactly the same’ a good thing?”
“My self-satisfaction has been no more than skin deep lately. I’m becoming acutely aware of my mortality. Isn’t it sad that if I died tomorrow, the most appropriate place to bury me would be under that table in Soho?”
“So this is some kind of bizarre mid-life crisis? Or are you here looking for a better gravesite?”
“You’re not making this any easier.”
“Sorry.” But she wasn’t sorry. She didn’t intend to make anything easier for him. He had apparently crossed the country in the grip of an early New Year’s resolution, one made on impulse and destined to be abandoned just as quickly.
He stared into his glass, frowning as though it contained tea leaves he could read. True to Charlotte’s prediction, “Macho Man” assaulted their ears, greeted by muffled shouts and the thumping of dozens of feet. “How can you hear yourself think with that going on?” Richard growled.
“Think of it as your theme music.”
He stared at her for a moment and then threw back his head, laughing. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here.”
“Enough of the sphinx routine,” Charlotte snapped. “You’re an intelligent man, far too intelligent to jump on a plane without knowing why. And I know it wasn’t just to hear my snappy retorts. So why don’t you tell me what’s going on.”
“Fair enough.” He stared into his glass again, focusing on it for so long that she wondered if he had nodded off with his eyes open. Then, at last, he began to speak, still studying the amber liquid. “When I came out here last October, it wasn’t because Will needed me. It was because I had to get away.”
“A lot of things. But the last straw was when a girl I’d spent an evening with several months before called to announce that I was about to become a father.”
She hadn’t expected this. “You have a child?”
“It turned out to be someone else’s, thank God. But I wasn’t sure back then. The timing was right, and even though I’m careful, accidents can happen.”
“Had this ever happened to you before?”
“Once—also a false alarm—but that was a long time ago, during my misspent youth.”
Charlotte stifled several possible retorts. She had asked him to get to the point, and owed it to him not to fling obstacles in his path.
“When it happened this time,” he continued, “it got me thinking about birth and death and what the hell I was doing with my life. Here I was, thirty-five years old and still acting like a sophomore at Yale, sleeping through my morning classes because I’d been out so late the night before.”
“A tad undignified.”
He snorted softly. “Not to mention deadly dull. The problem with screwing girls in their early twenties for a decade and a half is that you get older, but they don’t. You start collecting gray hairs in embarrassing places and wrinkles you don’t want. Next thing you know, you feel like their lecherous Uncle Ernie.”
She snickered. “I doubt they think of you that way.”
“Maybe not. But in addition to the wrinkles, over the years you gain experience. And maybe even a shred or two of wisdom, if you pay attention to what’s happening around you. The girls just aren’t there yet. There have been too many evenings lately when I was almost willing to make a vow of celibacy in return for an evening of intelligent adult conversation.” He smirked. “Almost.”
“So you were hoping that you could have it both ways in San Francisco?”
“I figured I needed to break my old habits and form some new ones, and a temporary change of venue might help. Plus, I had that paternity thing hanging over my head. So I tagged along with Will and Sonya.”
Charlotte tried to remember what Elizabeth had said about him back then. “You mostly hung around with Jane at first, right?”
“Right. It was like going from Britney Spears to Grace Kelly. The most remarkable thing about Jane is that although she’s about as goody-two-shoes as it gets, she’s not dull. We couldn’t have been more wrong for each other; I like my women with a good-sized wicked streak, and she was hung up on Chuckles. But we were bizarrely compatible as friends. We talked, and talked, and talked, and—” He grimaced. “This is going to sound like bad poetry, but it was like she drained some of the poison from my soul.”
Charlotte suppressed the gagging noises she would ordinarily have made as a commentary. “Did you tell her about the paternity situation?”
“Yeah. She gave me good advice, both as a friend and as an attorney. By the way, Will doesn’t know about the baby scare, and I’d like to keep it that way. The only people I told were Jane and my father. Dad wasn’t exactly a choir boy before he married Mom, so I knew he’d understand.”
“Okay. My lips are hermetically sealed.”
“Then one night we went to hear Lizzy and her band sing. Both Lizzy and Jane had been telling me about a woman they wanted me to meet. I hate blind dates and I usually refuse to participate, but this time I thought, what the hell. Technically speaking, it wasn’t a date. We were going to be in a group, so if I didn’t like the woman, I could ignore her and talk to Jane and Will and Sonya. But then I met her.”
“And you liked the size of her wicked streak?”
He looked her over as though studying a marble statue … or a Playboy centerfold. “Oh, yeah. Everything about her was just the right size.”
She couldn’t help but smile.
“Right from the start, you were something special. I rarely meet a woman who can keep up in the suggestive-banter department. With you, the question was whether or not I could keep up. You raise banter to an art form, until it doubles as foreplay. By the time we left there that night, you had me so hot that—well, I assume you remember.”
She did. They had barely made it to the penthouse’s foyer before attacking each other like a pair of rabid wolves.
“Which led to a night of the most astonishing sex I’d ever had.”
An image of the two of them together flashed into her mind, so vivid that her insides twisted at the memory.
“Then during our second or third night together, I noticed something odd. I’m not usually much of a talker in bed. As soon as it’s over, I’m ready to get dressed and go home. But we were doing a lot of talking. Not so much during, but before and after and in between. And the talking was almost as good as the sex. Or is my memory playing tricks on me?”
“No, it’s not.” She met his searching gaze briefly but then looked away. “It was all good.” Damn him.
“Then why aren’t we still doing it?” He gulped down the rest of this drink. “That weekend in Phoenix—I’ve never had a better time. And I don’t just mean in bed, though I’ve never experienced anything to compare with that either.”
She sighed loudly. “Same here.”
His scrutiny became even more intense. “Okay, this is the part that mystifies me. We get along great, we have plenty to talk about, and the sex is mind-blowing. So obviously the thing to do is to stay as far apart as possible.”
“You make it sound like I’m avoiding you in the hall between classes. We live on opposite coasts. It’s natural that we’re not going to see much of each other.”
“But you’ve been ducking my phone calls, and you wouldn’t come to Washington.”
“That was because—”
He slammed his glass down on the coffee table. “Damn it, Char, I miss you. Tonight in that bar, I realized that yours was the face I was searching for. So I dropped everything and got on an airplane. Don’t give me another load of bullshit.” He stared at her, his chest rising and falling rapidly, the cords of his neck standing out in sharp relief. Then, with an inarticulate sound, he stood up and crossed the room to pour another glass of scotch. When he returned to the sofa, he seemed calmer.
“What, exactly, are you trying to say?” she asked in a carefully measured voice.
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”
“Okay. I’ll start with what I’m not saying. Item one: I’m not saying that I love you. Lizzy thinks I do, and so does my mother. But I’ve never said those words to a woman, and I’m not going to say them unless I’m damn sure of my facts.”
“Not a declaration of love. Got it.” That was a good thing. She would have received any such declaration with deep skepticism.
“I’m not pledging my eternal fidelity either. I don’t know if that’s something I can promise to anyone.”
“Understood. Same here.”
“So far, so good. But here’s what I am saying. We’re good together. So good it’s scary.”
She nodded reluctantly. “Like looking in the mirror.”
“Exactly like that.” His hand closed around her arm. “Look, Char, when you started pushing me away, at first I thought you were right. Obviously, anything between us was going to be way too good to just fizzle out quickly. But where could we go, realistically? Neither of us has shown any aptitude for relationships, and a pairing of two people with short attention spans is doomed from the get-go.”
She didn’t comment. He had neatly summarized her thoughts, leaving her nothing to say. But now, staring at the muscular arm brushing hers, the argument failed to convince her.
“So I went back to my old life.” His smile was strangely sad. “Or I tried to. But I seem to have outgrown it, and that’s your fault. You’re what I want, at least for now. I don’t know how I’ll feel next month or maybe even next week, but I know how I feel right now. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I want from you.”
She nodded, just a slight bobbing of her head. Again it was as though he was extracting the words from her mind.
“So here’s the deal. If you get offered the job at Columbia, take it. Move to New York. Then we can scratch the surface, along with anything else that itches, whenever we feel like it.”
“Are you talking about living together?” She wasn’t ready for anything close to that sort of commitment.
“No.” He shook his head firmly. “You’ll have your place, I’ll have mine, and we’ll get together when we want to. No promises, no restrictions, no strings. If you want to boink a fellow professor—some guy with more hair on his face than on top of his head, who wears Dockers and horn rimmed glasses—feel free. I don’t want to hear about it, but I won’t try to stop you.”
“And if your taste for twenty-something flesh resurfaces?” Undoubtedly it would.
“Then I may do some extracurricular screwing. But I won’t flaunt it.”
She ruthlessly squelched the unpleasant image he had evoked, but had he said anything else, she wouldn’t have believed him. “And if I get offered the job at UCLA instead?”
He shrugged. “I was born in California. I don’t think a little sunshine would kill me.”
“Wait a minute.” Her mind slammed into reverse gear, nearly driving the air from her lungs. “Are you saying you’d move to LA to be with me?”
“Relax.” He grinned at her. “You wouldn’t be responsible for me. Same deal as New York. Separate quarters, no strings attached.”
“How would you work for William if you lived in LA?”
“They have these newfangled gadgets called airplanes and telephones. And maybe you’ve heard of this amazing invention, the Internet.” He snorted. “Then again, Will has barely heard of it, so forget I brought it up.”
“I’m interviewing at Stanford, too.”
He shrugged “Even better. San Francisco is my home town. And, as you may recall, I have a rather nice penthouse at my disposal.”
His willingness to relocate, more than anything else, began to convince her of his sincerity. “I’ve missed you,” she said softly.
“Is that a yes?”
She took a deep breath. It might be the biggest mistake of her life, but she couldn’t seem to maintain her wall of resistance. “I’m not entirely sure what I’m agreeing to, but, yes.”
The warmest smile Charlotte had ever seen from him spread across his face. “That’s my girl.” He leaned over and kissed her. It was by no means their first kiss, but it was the first that she would have called affectionate. Then he drew back and looked into her eyes, as though wondering if she approved. This hint of uncertainty from Richard Fitzwilliam, whose photo probably appeared in the dictionary beside the definition of “cocky,” charmed her more than it should have. Yes, she could learn to love him. And that was frightening.
He stretched his arm around her and pulled her closer. She was too tall to rest her head on his shoulder, as she had sometimes seen Elizabeth and other friends do with their … boyfriends? They would have to come up with another term. Instead, she rested a hand on his thigh. “How did you know I’d be home tonight?” she asked.
“I didn’t. I went to the Clift Hotel first. Lizzy had mentioned the party, and I figured you’d be there. But Jane said she hadn’t seen you. She offered to call and find out where you were, but I was afraid you’d vanish if you knew I was on my way. I was planning to camp out on your doorstep for as long as necessary.”
“And if I’d brought a man back here with me?”
“Well, luckily, you didn’t, because tonight I’m not in the mood to share.” He grinned at her. “I suppose I could have beaten him to a pulp and impressed you with my masculinity.”
“In the Navy” poured through the walls, continuing the Village People retrospective. She yawned, the late hour extracting its toll. “Did you bring any luggage?” she asked, rising to her feet.
“I didn’t have time to go home and pack.” He stood as well.
“I probably have a toothbrush and a razor you can use. Can’t help you with clothes, though.”
“Won’t need any. Not for a day or two, at least.” His arms closed around her waist, holding her in a firm grip that felt astonishingly good. “We’ve been talking ever since I got here. And I know I said that the talking was almost as good as the sex, but I think we ought to move on to the thing we do best.”
He pulled her tightly toward him, bringing their bodies into contact from head to toe. A shudder rippled up her spine as she felt herself engulfed in waves of raw masculine power.
“You’re right,” she said, her voice like the husky growl of a tigress. “We’ve talked enough for one night.” Without another word, she took his hand and led him into her bedroom, shutting the door behind them.