His concentration had been flagging for the past hour, as second thoughts about his offer to Catherine de Bourgh had flooded his mind. Had he been insane? If Catherine offered her the job, Elizabeth would have to leave New York by the end of August. He had only that long to try to build a relationship that could survive a separation of three thousand miles. And he would be away from New York for much of the summer: first Chicago, then a few days at Tanglewood. Next came Pemberley, and then Interlochen. After that … he didn’t remember, but by then the summer would be halfway over.
He wanted … no, needed to see her. But she was no doubt working on her presentation for the following day. He understood her quest for perfection, and knew that she would resent the interruption of an uninvited visitor.
But a quick phone call, wishing her luck—she wouldn’t mind that … he hoped.
He found the small sheet of paper in his wallet and cradled it in his hand. Thank goodness he hadn’t followed his first instinct and discarded her phone number after their argument at City Hall Park. He stood looking through the French doors at his rain-soaked balcony and dialed the number, feeling glum when voicemail picked up the call.
“Hello, Elizabeth? It’s William. William Darcy.” He cringed; he was duplicating his previous, barely coherent phone message. “I just called to wish you—”
“Hello, William?” She sounded breathless.
His spirits soared. “Oh, good, you’re there. Am I disturbing you?”
“No, it’s okay. I’m just letting the machine get the calls so I can see if it’s someone I want to talk to.”
William was pleased to learn that he belonged in that category. “I wanted to wish you luck tomorrow. But I know you’re busy; I won’t keep you from your work.”
“Actually, I could use a little break.”
“Then my timing is excellent.” He settled onto the sofa in front of the fireplace. “How is your work going?”
“I’ve completely revamped the presentation twice so far today. Laura’s going to kill me for making all these changes.”
“I’m sure she’ll be proud of you.”
“That’s sweet of you to say.”
William let those words settle over him like a warm blanket. He didn’t realize he hadn’t answered her until she spoke again. “What have you been doing today while I’ve been slaving away on an overheating laptop?”
“Practicing, mostly.” He took a deep breath and summoned his courage. “You mentioned needing a break.”
“What if I were to show up at your door in about an hour and take you to dinner?”
After a pause that seemed to go on for weeks, she answered, “That sounds wonderful, but I really can’t spare that much time.”
“We could go someplace quick and casual.” He didn’t know of any restaurants matching that description, but Sonya and her encyclopedic knowledge of New York were only a phone call away.
“Even so, I still have so much work to do. I’m sorry.”
Elizabeth sounded sincerely disappointed, but he couldn’t trust his instincts, not after misreading her so completely in the recent past. She was probably just trying to get rid of him politely. “I understand,” he said, a familiar weight settling in his chest. “I should probably let you get back to work.”
“But I’d love to have dinner with you some other time. If you wanted to.”
“I want to.” The words were out of his mouth before his brain had finished processing her statement. “What about tomorrow night?”
“Oh. I wish I could, but I have to work.”
“I have to work then, too. But I have Wednesday night off.”
Damn. “I’m leaving for Chicago Wednesday morning.”
“Our schedules are a disaster, aren’t they?”
“So it seems. Are you sure you can’t go out tonight?”
She hesitated. “I’d probably just spend my time worrying about the work I wasn’t getting done.”
“All right, then, we’ll have to find a time after I get back from Chicago.”
“I’d like that. You know, all this talk about dinner has made me hungry.”
“Me too.” William kicked off his shoes and propped his feet on the coffee table, grateful that neither Mrs. Reynolds nor his grandmother could see this major breach of decorum.
“And I’m having the weirdest craving for tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. That was my favorite meal when I was a little girl. I guess I’m nervous, so I’m craving comfort food.”
He could easily imagine her as a child, curls flying around her face, eyes flashing with mischief. “Is that what you’re going to have for dinner?” he asked. “Grilled cheese and soup?”
“I wish. We’re missing a few of the essentials, like tomato soup, bread, and cheese. Things have been a little crazy lately, and grocery shopping was one of the casualties. I’ll probably skip dinner and just make a pot of coffee.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy. Couldn’t you order something and have it delivered?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll have a good meal tomorrow at the restaurant where I work.” She paused. “But I guess I should get back to my presentation.”
“Then I won’t keep you. Good luck tomorrow. I’ll be thinking about you.”
“Thank you. And, William?”
“I’m glad you called.”
“I’ll call you again tomorrow night, to see how your presentation went. Goodbye, Elizabeth.”
William hung up the phone. It struck him how different their lives were. She was skipping dinner because she hadn’t had time to go to the grocery store. When he was hungry, he simply spoke to Mrs. Reynolds, and a meal appeared a short time later.
He decided to have his dinner first, and then get back to practicing. Georgie and Rose were out for the evening, so he would be dining alone. But rather than call Mrs. Reynolds on the house phone as he would ordinarily have done, he trotted downstairs to the kitchen. He had another matter to discuss with her.
About an hour later, Elizabeth was sipping black coffee and frowning at the latest version of her presentation. The phone rang. As she had done before, she allowed voicemail to pick up the call. This time, she heard Charlotte’s voice.
“Come on, Liz. I know you’re there. Pick up.”
Elizabeth hurried to the phone. “Hi, Char.”
“All ready for tomorrow?”
“Yes and no. Any sage advice, oh exalted doctoral student?”
“Leave your thesis alone, put on something sexy, and go out and party. You’ll do better tomorrow if you have some fun tonight.”
“As a matter of fact, I turned down not one, but two dinner invitations for tonight. From cousins, no less.”
“Bad form, Liz. You should have accepted both invitations and asked if they’d be interested in some three-way action.”
“Very funny. If you don’t make it as an academic, you have a great career ahead of you in stand-up comedy.”
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it. Tell me more about these cousins.”
“One is named Richard Fitzwilliam. Handsome, wealthy, and charming.”
“Well, I can see certainly why you turned him down.”
“He was charming in a bad boy sort of way, and I could tell he was mentally undressing me.”
“Good Lord, he sounds perfect. Is he tall enough for me?”
“He might be, if you wear flats.”
“I’m going to have to come to New York for a visit. And the other cousin?”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “William Darcy.”
“There was a reception last night after that recital I told you about, and we … well, I guess you’d say we declared a truce.” It had been more than that, but Elizabeth wasn’t sure how to explain.
“That must be a relief; I know it’s been bothering you. I bet he would have taken you someplace incredible for dinner, but considering how you feel about him, I’m not surprised that you turned him down.”
Elizabeth wished she did know how she felt about him. “As a matter of fact, I wanted to go. But I thought I’d better stay home tonight and work.”
“You wanted to go out to dinner with William Darcy? Apparently I’ve missed some major developments. Do tell.”
Elizabeth was spared explanations by a knock at the door. “Hold on a sec. I’ll be right back.”
When Elizabeth opened the door, she was astonished to see Allen, the Darcys’ driver, standing in the hallway. He held a dripping umbrella in one hand and a large picnic basket decorated with festive ribbons in the other.
“Good evening, Ms. Bennet.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t buzz you from the intercom downstairs. My hands were full, and someone let me in while I was juggling things.”
“Oh, that’s fine. But what brings you here?”
He extended the basket toward her. “This is for you, from Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth stared at the basket and then looked up at Allen expectantly.
“He wrote a note explaining everything,” Allen said. He reached into the pocket of his rain-spotted jacket and extracted a cream-colored envelope, which he handed to Elizabeth. She tore it open and read the note:
You wouldn’t let me take you out to dinner tonight, but at least I can send dinner to you. I asked my housekeeper to fix you some comfort food.
I was tempted to make this delivery myself, but I didn’t want to distract you from your work. I hope you enjoy your dinner, and I wish you all the best tomorrow.
With warmest regards,
Elizabeth looked up from the note. She was almost too astonished for words. “Please thank William—um, Mr. Darcy—for me. Tell him … well, just tell him thank you, that this was a wonderful surprise. Oh, and please … please thank the housekeeper, too.”
“Of course, Ms. Bennet.”
“And thank you for coming out in the rain to deliver it.”
He shook his head with a smile. “No need to thank me, Miss. I was happy to do it.”
Allen handed Elizabeth the basket and turned to go. She shut the door and returned to the kitchen, setting the basket on the counter to unload it. When she opened the first container of food and saw the contents, an audible sigh escaped her lips. How could someone so charming have ever seemed cold and arrogant?
Her eyes fell on the telephone sitting on the counter. She had completely forgotten Charlotte. She grabbed the phone. “Char, I’m sorry I kept you waiting. You won’t believe what just happened.”
Late Monday night, Elizabeth rushed back to her apartment. Her eyes were bleary from lack of sleep and her feet ached from a long shift at the restaurant, but her mind raced with restless energy. She checked the clock in the kitchen; it was nearly 10:30.
She was in the bedroom undressing when the telephone rang. She threw an oversized tee shirt over her head and sprinted to the phone.
“Hi, Elizabeth, it’s William.”
“Oh, hi, William.” Elizabeth was proud of her deliberately casual tone, as if she hadn’t hurried home from work, hoping she wouldn’t miss his call.
“How did things go today?”
“Great. I just have some minor editing to do on the thesis and then I’m done!”
“Congratulations. I’m glad it went well.”
“And, William, I can’t thank you enough for the dinner last night. That was so sweet of you. If I’d known your phone number, I would have called to tell you so.”
“Well, first of all, let’s fix that problem.” He was briefly silent, and then grumbled, “I don’t remember the number and I can’t figure out how to find it on this stupid phone. But I’ll let you know what it is as soon as I find out.”
She only barely stopped herself from laughing, guessing that he might not share her amusement. “Not good with numbers, I take it?”
“Usually I am. I have a weird mental block about the cell phone. But getting back to the dinner, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Did everything taste the way you remembered?”
“Much better. That was a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich!”
“Mrs. Reynolds said she added a few different types of cheese.”
Elizabeth sat down at the kitchen table. “It was delicious, and so was the tomato soup. And the salad, and the apple pie, too. Please thank her for me.”
“I will. By the way, I had the same thing for dinner.”
“You’re kidding! I thought rich people ate gourmet food every night.”
“Remember, you said it was a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich.”
She laughed. “True. But I don’t see you as being a grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup kind of guy.”
“You made it sound so good, I couldn’t resist. And since you wouldn’t let me take you out, it was the closest I could come to having dinner with you.”
The warmth in his voice surprised and touched her, but she had no idea what to say in response, so she changed the subject. “By the way, I traded shifts for tomorrow.”
“So we can have dinner after all?”
“No, I still have to work. But I arranged to get off a little early. I thought maybe we could meet for coffee, if you’re interested.” It seemed like a safer option than dinner. If the arrogant William Darcy showed up, she could make a quick and graceful exit.
“I’d like that.” The pleasure in his voice was obvious. “Do you have a place in mind?”
“If it’s okay with you, we could meet near the restaurant where I work; that way I can get there a little earlier.”
“There’s a little café in the Village that I love called La Lanterna di Vittorio. It’s on MacDougal, not far from Washington Square. Would that be okay?”
“Absolutely. What time?”
“I can be there by about 9:30.”
“I’ll see you at 9:30, then.”
She yawned. “I’m sorry. I stayed up too late last night, and I’ve been on the go constantly since dawn.”
“Then I should let you get some sleep.”
“I guess so.” She didn’t want the call to end, but she was exhausted. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Good night, Elizabeth. Sleep well.”
Elizabeth hung up the phone. She shook her head, smiling at the improbable fact that she had a date with William Darcy. A month ago he had been a remote figure, one she admired from afar. Three weeks ago, she had considered him an arrogant snob, though she couldn’t deny feeling an unwelcome attraction to him. And now, she felt … what?
She still admired his musical talent. She also admired his generosity and his commitment to music education. In the past two days, he had shown her how charming and thoughtful he could be; she was beginning to genuinely like him. And she still felt the same attraction, though it was no longer entirely unwelcome.
But what if the other William, the one who seemed to enjoy patronizing and insulting her, was lurking somewhere, ready to re-emerge? No, she couldn’t trust him. Not yet.