William checked his watch for at least the tenth time in as many minutes. It was 9:37, and Elizabeth had said that she would arrive by 9:30. What if she had changed her mind? Or remembered all the reasons she hated him?
He was disgusted with his inability to control his nerves. He had spent at least fifteen minutes standing in his dressing room wearing nothing but boxer shorts while he earnestly contemplated three pairs of trousers: gray dress slacks, tan khakis, and jeans. He had finally opted for the middle-of-the-road choice, the khakis, along with a white button-down shirt.
After extensive experimentation in the mirror, he had elected to leave his top two shirt buttons open instead of his usual one. He had even tried opening three buttons, but he had quickly re-fastened the bottom button with a derisive snort. All he had needed to complete that look was a long gold chain and a pair of leather pants so tight he couldn’t breathe.
His eyes followed a large group passing on the sidewalk, every one of them dressed in black. He glanced down at his decidedly non-black clothes. He might has well have worn Bermuda shorts and socks with sandals; he wouldn’t have looked any more out of place.
It wasn’t just his wardrobe that had received extra attention. Richard would have hooted at the sight of William frowning at the mirror, trying to tame a few locks of hair that insisted on falling onto his forehead. Now he knew what Sonya was talking about when she said she was having a bad hair day. On top of that, he had cut himself shaving twice.
William checked his watch again. 9:39. She wasn’t coming. He had known it was too good to be true.
Then he saw Elizabeth approaching. He swallowed hard and reached up to straighten his tie, belatedly recalling that he wasn’t wearing one. He let out a miserable little groan when he saw that she, too, was dressed entirely in black. Her hair was pulled back into a casual ponytail; she had a natural, unaffected beauty, so different from the other women he knew, that he found extremely appealing.
Her face lit up when she saw him, and a new knot formed in his stomach. “Hi, William,” she said. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting. I was a few minutes late getting off work. Have you been waiting long?”
“Not long.” Half an hour, but she didn’t need to know that.
She stepped forward until their bodies almost touched. “Thank you again for dinner the other night,” she said softly. “That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.”
He wanted to kiss her, but he seemed frozen in place, gazing longingly at her lips. What was it about this woman that turned him into a gauche 14-year-old?
“William? Is something wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I was … never mind. Shall we go inside?”
They climbed the steps to the café, and were soon seated at a small table near the fireplace.
“I’ve spent hours here studying,” she said. “Especially on winter nights. The fireplaces are always lit when it’s chilly out, and it’s so quiet and warm. And the coffee is good.”
A few minutes later, they sat sipping double cappuccinos with a thick layer of foam. “Isn’t it good?” she asked.
“Yes.” He choked out the word; she had caught him with a mouth full of steaming liquid.
“By the way, the desserts are delicious too, especially the tiramisu. I think you could gain weight just looking at all the goodies they serve.”
He winced; he had neglected to offer her more than a coffee. “Did you want to get dessert?”
“No, I’d better not. But if you want something ….”
“No.” His nervous stomach rebelled at the prospect of food.
Silence fell at the table, and they exchanged awkward smiles as they drank their cappuccinos. He tried to think of something to say, but when she licked a small dollop of foam off her upper lip, his mind went blank. Heat roared through him as he imagined that tongue exploring his mouth. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“We were unusually busy at the restaurant tonight, for a Tuesday,” she said, her comment wrenching him from dangerous territory. “We had a large party, all women. It was an informal reunion for a bunch of NYU graduates who were in the same sorority at about the same time. They seemed to have a lot of fun.”
“Where do you work?”
“At the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a little French restaurant a few blocks from here. We serve simple French food in a casual setting; probably not the kind of dining experience you’re used to. But the food is good, and it’s friendly and relaxed, nothing like those pretentious places where they think they’re doing you a favor by acknowledging your existence. You know, restaurants like Daniel. Or at least I’ve heard it’s like that. I’ve never been there.”
Daniel was one of William’s favorite restaurants. In fact, he had intended to take her there for dinner. He scrambled to find something to say. “I assume you’re the hostess. Or a manager.”
“No.” A fleeting frown crossed her face. “I’m a server.”
“Oh.” He stared into his coffee cup, with no idea what to say.
“I’ve worked in restaurants off and on since high school. It can be hard work, but I kind of enjoy it. And it works well if you’re a student and need your days free.”
William hated the thought of Elizabeth, with all her energy and talent, being forced to depend on the whims of others for her livelihood. Waiters and waitresses were the sort of anonymous people he scarcely noticed. He wished fervently that he could tell her to quit her job, that he would happily write her a check for twice what she would make carrying heavy trays and filling water glasses. Then it occurred to him that he had already done that, with his call to Catherine.
Elizabeth surreptitiously checked her watch and found that they had been together for only half an hour. It seemed longer. Much longer.
Every attempt she made at starting a conversation generated either a terse reply from William, or no response at all. His expression had been grim ever since they had entered the café, and if anything, it was getting worse. And his glacial disdain over her restaurant job was all too evident.
She had felt a swarm of butterflies in her stomach while walking to the café, recalling the warmth and intimacy they had shared the previous Saturday night at the reception. He looked wonderful in his expensive but casual clothes, which emphasized his height and his lean form. The few curls that had strayed onto his forehead lent his face a boyish appeal, and she had caught herself more than once staring in fascination at the small glimpses of his chest afforded by the open neck of his shirt. But physical attraction wasn’t enough, and apparently that was all they had.
She pushed her empty coffee cup away and stood up, grabbing her purse. “I have to go.”
He looked up at her, a befuddled expression on his face. “But it’s still early.”
“I have a busy day tomorrow.”
“Have another cappuccino.”
“Or some of that tiramisu you mentioned. Don’t go so soon.”
Elizabeth sighed. She would have to be blunt. “This was a mistake. Let’s just admit it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let’s be honest. You’re not enjoying yourself. I should never have suggested this place. It was a dumb idea, coming here.”
“There’s nothing wrong with this place.”
“Oh, come on. You walked in and looked around, and I saw the expression on your face. It’s okay. I understand. You’re accustomed to plush surroundings where the riffraff aren’t welcome. Which shows how little we have in common.”
“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. William Darcy and a waitress … it doesn’t fit. You live in a world of champagne and caviar and elegant women in designer gowns. I take the subway and wait on tables, and I buy my clothes in resale shops.”
“I’m not ashamed of any of that, but I can see why it’s a problem for you. It’s okay, really; we just come from different worlds that don’t mix. Goodbye, William.”
He jumped from his seat and grabbed her hand. “No. Don’t go.”
She was surprised to see something in his eyes that looked like desperation. She hesitated, but then allowed herself to be led back to the table.
“I’m sorry,” he began. “I know I’ve totally screwed things up this evening.”
“This isn’t an issue of blame or anybody screwing up. We’re different, too different to be compatible. We’ve known that from the start.”
“Please, let me say this.”
“Okay.” It was difficult to refuse him anything when his warm brown eyes pleaded for her cooperation.
“You’re right that I haven’t been enjoying myself so far tonight. But it’s not because I don’t like the café or because you’re a waitress.”
“I’ve made so many mistakes with you,” he continued, “and I know this is my last chance. I wanted so much for tonight to be perfect, and that made me nervous.”
“I’m a little nervous too,” she replied.
“I’m more than a little nervous. I’m terrified of making another mistake. And because of that, I’ve done everything wrong.”
She wondered why she hadn’t noticed the tension in his body before: his ramrod straight posture, his hands clasped together on the table, his face tight and anxious. “And apparently when you get nervous you get quiet?”
“I’m not that talkative no matter what, but when I’m nervous it gets worse.”
“I’m the opposite. When I’m nervous, I talk.”
He shrugged. “Then we’re a perfect pair. You can talk, and I’ll listen.”
She smiled in spite of herself. “That’s kind of what we’ve been doing so far. But what about the rest? I don’t think we have much in common.”
“I think we do. We like the beach. We have almost the same color hair. We like our cappuccino with extra foam.”
His bashful smile charmed her. “Well ….” she began, but he wasn’t finished.
“We’re both perfectionists.”
“And we love music.” He slid his chair closer and leaned toward her. “And I don’t just mean that we enjoy it. I mean that it speaks to our souls. Not everyone feels that, or even understands it.”
She couldn’t resist his intense gaze and his low voice, as dark and rich as the espresso in her cup. He reached out to caress her cheek, and she held her breath. Slowly, so slowly, he moved toward her, and her eyes fluttered closed.
At first, his mouth barely brushed hers, teasing and tantalizing, but then the pressure of his lips increased slightly. This gentle assault on her senses devastated her resistance, rendering her oblivious to their surroundings. As his warm lips lingered on hers, her hand stole up to touch his jaw.
He drew back from her slightly and looked into her eyes. “You see,” he murmured, “we have some things in common.”
She reached up and smoothed the curls off his forehead, curls that she had been longing to touch since that first weekend in San Francisco. He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose, and then his lips brushed hers again.
Suddenly she recalled that they were in a café with at least a dozen people around. She drew back, glancing around her self-consciously. William, by contrast, seemed to be relaxing at last.
“I have a suggestion,” he said, sitting back in his chair.
“Why don’t we order another round of cappuccinos and get to know each other. Maybe we’ll find some other things we have in common.”
She smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
“And I think I want to try that tiramisu after all. Shall I get some for both of us?”
“Could you get two forks with yours?”
He sighed. “I know this routine. Georgie does it all the time. You don’t want one of your own, but you’ll end up eating most of mine.” He dropped his air of mock disgust and grinned at her. “I suppose that could be arranged.”
“You’re kidding! She was still standing there when you came out of the men’s room?” Elizabeth asked, a broad smile on her face.
William continued his story of an encounter with a persistent fan. “I suppose I should have just walked past her. I’m sure she wasn’t dangerous. But all I could think to do was to go back in and wait till she was gone. So there I was, hanging around the men’s room, and pretty soon I noticed another man hanging around too. He was checking me out.”
“And not because he wanted your autograph.”
“I don’t think he recognized me. Besides, he wasn’t looking at my face.”
They laughed together. With their initial clumsy start behind them, they had fallen into relaxed conversation, sharing stories of their experiences as musicians. William couldn’t remember ever spending a more enjoyable evening.
“Are you sure you’re not just making that up?” she asked.
“No, I swear it’s true. Not to change the subject, but I think I want another cappuccino. How about you?”
“I’d better not. I’m on caffeine overload as it is.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, my gosh. It’s after 1:00 am! I had no idea it was so late.”
“Neither did I. But, then, I’m a night owl.”
“So am I.”
“Something else we have in common,” he remarked with a lazy grin.
“All right, all right, you win. We have lots of things in common! But I want to get up early and do the final edits on my thesis.”
“And I leave for Chicago in the morning.” He sighed. “I guess we’d better get going. I’ll call Allen.”
“Where is he?”
“Somewhere nearby. I didn’t know exactly when I’d need him.”
“Poor Allen. Do you always keep him out so late?”
William had never thought about it. He pulled out his cell phone, spoke to Allen briefly, and then reported, “He’s out in front waiting for us.”
“Does he like cappuccino? Should we bring him one?”
William shrugged; he had no idea how Allen felt about cappuccino.
“But I suppose it’s too late,” Elizabeth mused, “because of the caffeine.”
They exited the café together. As they drove away, Elizabeth asked Allen about his evening while William listened. He had never thought about how Allen spent his time while waiting around to transport family members.
“Have you gotten any more job offers?” William asked. He had avoided bringing up the subject all evening, dreading the news he would probably hear, but he had to know.
“My roommate called me at work to tell me that I got a call from Pacific Conservatory this evening. I’m surprised; I didn’t think I was going to hear from them.”
“Did they offer you a job?”
“The restaurant was so busy I didn’t have time to return the call. But I’ll call them tomorrow.”
His spirits plunged. Even though he had set it in motion, the reality that she would be leaving New York at the end of the summer was a distressing blow, especially after such a wonderful evening.
“When do you get back from Chicago?” she asked.
“Next Monday night. And speaking of that, are you free for dinner on Tuesday?”
“I’m supposed to work, but maybe I can switch with someone and get the night off.”
“Then we’ll plan on it, tentatively at least.”
They reached her building much too soon. This time she made no attempt to discourage him from accompanying her into the building. They stepped onto the elevator together, exchanging shy smiles.
When they reached her door, she turned to face him. “Well, I should say goodnight. It’s late, and I need to get up in the morning. And it sounds like you have to get an early start, too.”
“I had a good time tonight.” She slipped her hand into his.
“So did I,” he said in a low voice, stepping forward. She stood quietly, her fingers entwined with his, and gazed steadily into his eyes.
He needed no further encouragement. He bent his head and captured her lips in a slow, languorous kiss. She leaned against him, sighing softly. Releasing her hand, he wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her against him. It felt even better to hold her than he remembered from their dance in San Francisco; she was so soft and warm, and seemed smaller and more fragile in his arms than he had recalled.
He felt the delicious sensation of her hands sliding up his chest to his shoulders, and he heard himself groan, a rumbling sound deep in his chest. He reluctantly released her and stepped away.
“Good night, Elizabeth,” he said softly. “I’ll call you from Chicago.”
She stood looking at him, her lips parted, her eyes warm. He was on the verge of pulling her into his arms for another, more passionate kiss when she turned away to unlock the door to her apartment. She glanced back at him, smiled, and slipped inside, closing the door behind her and leaving him alone in the dimly lit hallway.
An unfamiliar impulse caused William to ignore Allen’s attempt to open the back door for him; he settled himself in the front passenger seat instead. When Allen resumed his place behind the steering wheel, he paused and looked at William, his brow furrowed.
“Is everything all right, sir?” Allen asked.
“If I may ask, did you and Miss Bennet enjoy your evening?”
“Yes, we did.”
“She seems like a lovely young lady.”
William smiled. He could still feel the softness of her body in his arms. “She is.”
The car glided smoothly along, the inhabitants silent. At last William spoke again. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting for me till so late.”
“No need to apologize. That’s my job.”
“But you could have spent a quiet evening at home until I needed you. We need to work out a system.”
Allen shot a glance at William, the confusion on his face evident. “Ah … yes, sir.”
“And I was wondering. How do you feel about cappuccino?”