Elizabeth’s pulse quickened at the sound of the deep voice on the other end of the phone line. She said a brief prayer of thanksgiving that it wasn’t a video call. Her damp hair hung down her back in a tangled mass, and her baggy, knee-length tee shirt was dotted with ink stains.
“Hi, William. I thought it might be you.” Elizabeth plopped into a chair at the kitchen table.
“Because nobody else calls you this late in the evening?”
“Char and Jane do sometimes, but that’s about it. Don’t worry, though, it’s fine, because—”
“Because you’re a night owl. Just like me.”
“One of the many things we have in common.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I already surrendered on that point. We have lots in common! But you’re never going to let me live it down, are you?”
“Sooner or later. But right now I’m having too much fun reminding you.”
It was the third day of William’s trip to Chicago, and the third time he had called her for a leisurely late-evening chat. She had begun to catch frequent glimpses of his quiet sense of humor, contradicting her initial impression of him as solemn, even glum.
Also for the third consecutive day, a local florist had made a delivery to Elizabeth’s apartment. The most recent floral offering, displayed in a crystal vase, adorned the kitchen table.
“Thank you for the roses. They’re beautiful, just like the others.”
“What color are they?”
“Now, wait just a minute. You told me once that you handle this sort of thing yourself and don’t delegate it to your secretary. So shouldn’t you already know what color they are?”
“They’re yellow. And they’re absolutely gorgeous.” Elizabeth fingered one of the blooms gently. “But this is a tiny apartment and I already have roses all over the place. You don’t need to keep sending them.”
“I like sending you flowers,” he replied, his tone unrepentant. “Besides, as I said, I placed the order before I left New York. It’s too late to change it now.”
Their daily phone conversations had done much to reduce their residual awkwardness. Now it was easy to fall into relaxed, and often flirtatious, banter.
“How did the recording session go today?” she asked. He was in Chicago to record the Liszt Piano Concertos with the Chicago Symphony, and then for a weekend of concerts.
“Not as well as I had hoped. By late this afternoon we were performing well, but we’re going to have to re-record almost everything we did this morning.”
“Ah, there’s the perfectionist in you coming out. And I’ll say it before you do: that’s another thing we have in common, though you’re a hundred times worse than I am.”
He chuckled. “I should be making a list. Seriously, though, we still have a lot of work to do. It means a longer day tomorrow, but I’m not going to allow the performances on this CD to be substandard.”
“What if the people from the symphony disagree?”
“My contract gives me full approval rights. If I’m not satisfied, we’re not finished.”
Elizabeth smiled, shaking her head at the contradictions in William’s nature. He could be self-assured to the point of arrogance when discussing an important recording contract, yet the prospect of a cup of coffee with her had reduced him to a state of near panic. “They’d better watch out, or you’ll make them spend the next month in these recording sessions, always trying for the perfect take.”
“No chance of that. I have an important dinner date back in New York next week. At least, I hope I do. Did you find someone to change shifts with you so we can have dinner on Tuesday?”
“Tuesday will be fine for dinner.”
“Excellent. I’m looking forward to it.”
Her smile faded. She hadn’t lied to him, but she had allowed him to make a false assumption without correcting him. She shifted in her seat, grimacing as her tired back, the result of a long work day, registered its disapproval of the uncomfortable kitchen chairs.
“I need to move into the living room,” she remarked. “I’m in the kitchen right now, and the only thing these chairs were designed for is sitting up straight and gobbling down your breakfast.”
“I’m stretched out on a sofa in the living room and it’s quite comfortable.”
“I need space for a piano. You can’t put one in a standard hotel room.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re a lot more comfortable than I am right now.” She paused, but then took a breath and resolutely forged ahead. “I have some news.”
“I finally connected with the dean of Pacific Conservatory this afternoon, after a couple of days playing phone tag, and she offered me a job.”
“Yes. A fantastic job; plus, the salary is much more than I was expecting.”
“Congratulations; you must be pleased. I know how much you wanted to go back to San Francisco.”
“I’m glad I’ll be with Jane. And it’s a great job. Besides the salary, it’s a prestigious school, so it’s flattering that they want me. And I’m excited about the classes I’ll be teaching.” She hesitated. “But ….”
“I’ve been enjoying getting to know you. And soon we’ll be three thousand miles apart.”
At first, William was silent. Then he said, “We still have some time. I assume you won’t be leaving till August?”
This was the difficult part. “No. They want me to teach in a summer program that starts a week from Monday. I’m leaving next Friday.”
“Next Friday? A week from today?”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “Even if it weren’t for the summer program, I’d be going soon. Jane needs me now, not two months from now. In fact, I’ve been saving up for a plane ticket so I could go out for a long visit, in case I didn’t get the job.”
She heard a heavy sigh on William’s end of the line. “I should have realized,” he said in a subdued tone.
“My last day at the restaurant is Sunday. That’s why I’m free for dinner on Tuesday.”
An awkward silence ensued before he finally spoke. “I know I may not sound like it right now, but I’m happy for you. I’m just sorry that … I wish I hadn’t ….” He fell silent.
Their earlier light-hearted mood was completely shattered. Elizabeth was trying to think of something to say when William spoke again. “I’m sorry, but I need to go. I have to practice before it gets any later.”
“Of course. I understand.” But she didn’t understand, not entirely. “Thank you again for the roses.”
“You’re welcome. I’m not sure what Saturday’s color is, so you’ll have to tell me tomorrow.”
“Will you have time to call? You have a concert tomorrow night, don’t you?” Or maybe he’d rather not call anymore.
“It’s okay. I just might have to call even later than usual.”
“That works out better for me anyway. Some friends from the restaurant are taking me out for a bon voyage drink after work.”
“Elizabeth—” His tone was urgent, but then he stopped abruptly.
He was silent for a moment, and when he spoke his voice was impassive. “Nothing. It was nothing. Good night.”
William had been expecting to hear the news of Elizabeth’s job ever since Catherine had left a brief, cryptic message with Sonya on Wednesday afternoon. But the imminence of her departure was a harsh blow. He had ended their phone call abruptly out of fear that he would say something rash, something like, “Turn down the job. Stay with me. Now that I’ve finally found you, I can’t let you go.”
He sat up and massaged his forehead, trying to soothe away a persistent headache. He should have realized that she’d want to leave for California right away. After all, there was nothing to keep her in New York. They had been on only one official date. So that made them … what? Friends?
No. Friends didn’t kiss the way they had kissed at her apartment door on Tuesday night.
He leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees, his chin resting on his hand, and stared at the soft blue carpet under his feet. The recent warming of his relationship with Elizabeth had blurred the distinction between the real woman, with whom he had shared one date and a few lingering kisses, and the wraith who haunted his dreams. The worst of it was that, had his behavior in San Francisco not driven a wedge between them, their fledgling attraction that weekend would have had the chance to flourish sooner. He had only himself to blame.
At the end of the conversation, he had been on the verge of begging her to fly to Chicago to spend the rest of the weekend with him. Fortunately, sense and sanity had intruded in time; it was much too early in their relationship for such a proposal.
With a sigh of resignation, he stood up and ran his fingers through his hair. He moved to the piano, hoping to work through his frustrations at the instrument. And so, late into the night, William’s neighbors in the hotel were treated to—or plagued by, depending on one’s view—a lengthy practice session, featuring several repetitions of a brilliant rendition of the soloist’s part of Liszt’s Piano Concerto #1.
“Hello, Sonya?” William sat on the edge of the bed in the darkness, clutching his phone.
“William, is that you?” Sonya’s voice was thick with sleep. “Do you know what time it is?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, allow me to enlighten you. It’s not quite two thirty here in New York. I know that’s not late by your standards, but some of us aren’t creatures of the night.”
“Did I wake you?”
She yawned. “I wish I could say that you interrupted something more interesting than sleep.”
“I apologize. I need to discuss something important with you.”
“Which couldn’t wait till morning?” Sonya yawned again.
“I have an early recording session tomorrow, and it’s going to be a long day. I doubt I’ll have time for phone calls.”
“Okay, then, let’s get this over with. What do you need?”
“Dinner reservations for Tuesday evening.”
This announcement was greeted with long silence. Then she cleared her throat. “You said it was important.”
“And I need you to help me choose the restaurant. It has to be the perfect place.”
“You called me in the middle of the night to ask me to make dinner reservations.”
“Yes.” He wasn’t missing her sarcasm; he was ignoring it.
“For Tuesday. Which is four days from now. Or three, depending on how you look at it. You do realize that it’s Saturday morning, right? Very early Saturday morning, I might add.”
“All right, all right. I didn’t realize how late it was, and I’ve already apologized. My request may seem trivial to you, but it’s important to me. I was lying in bed thinking about it, and I thought you could help.”
“Fair enough. For the moment we’ll put the question of importance aside. Define ‘the perfect place.’”
“Elegant, but not pretentious.”
“In other words, all your usual haunts are out.”
William decided to ignore her mild taunt. “And it has to be thoroughly romantic.”
“Ah, the other shoe drops. You’re taking Elizabeth out to dinner on Tuesday.”
William decided that evasion was pointless. “Yes.”
“Good for you. I heard about the dinner delivery, by the way; I bet that melted her heart. And the rumor is that your date last Tuesday went well too.”
“I have no privacy in that house,” he grumbled.
“I know you think you’re inscrutable, but when it comes to Elizabeth, your poker face doesn’t work very well.”
“That doesn’t justify everyone discussing me behind my back. I’m entitled to conduct my private life … well, in private.”
“I know what you mean, but what happens to you affects all of us. Ninety percent of what goes on in that house revolves around you.”
“That’s not true.”
“All right, then, eighty percent. You just don’t realize it because you take it for granted. Besides, for reasons that escape me at the moment, we all care about you. We want you to be happy, and you’ve been walking around with your wounded heart on your sleeve for the past few weeks. In fact ….”
She paused. “Just be careful, okay?”
“Careful of what?”
“I’m just saying, be careful. I’ve never seen you like this, and I don’t want you to get hurt. Although it would serve you right for waking me up in the middle of the night to talk about your love life.”
He heard the rueful affection in her voice and smiled. “I’m lucky to have you in my corner, Sonya.”
“You certainly are. Remember that the next time I ask for a raise.”
“So what about some alternatives for Tuesday night?”
“I’m too tired to think clearly right now. Call me on Sunday, preferably at a time when normal people are awake, and we’ll review some options.”
“By the way, I assume the phone number you had me put into your cell phone’s speed dial was hers? The one just labeled ‘E’?”
“Yes. I half expected you to call and introduce yourself.”
“Don’t think I wasn’t tempted. Oh, the stories I could have shared about you at age twelve. But I restrained myself.”
He chuckled. “I’m proud of you.”
“It wasn’t completely altruistic. It’ll be more fun to save the stories till I meet her. I keep envisioning you squirming in a corner while I tell them.”
“I need to remember to keep you two very far apart.”
“Come on; you know I’m too sneaky for that. I’d find a way.”
William found himself feeling much more relaxed, no doubt from the familiarity of their friendly banter. He yawned.
“Well, look,” Sonya said, “I’d like to get an hour or two of sleep tonight, if that’s okay with you.”
“Of course. Sorry I woke you.”
“I’d tell you never to do it again, but I know better than to waste my breath. Now go get some sleep.”
“I will. Good night, Sonya.”
“So, is everything all set for tonight?” Sonya asked.
“I think so.” William sat down at his desk to stop his anxious pacing. He squared his shoulders, trying to appear more confident than he felt, and checked his watch. He was due to pick Elizabeth up for their dinner date in four hours.
Sonya pulled a chair close to his desk and sat down. “And you’re still sure you want to have dinner here?”
He scowled at her. “It was your idea! What are you saying now, that I shouldn’t?”
“Actually, Mrs. Reynolds thought of it, not me. And it all sounds very romantic. But keep in mind that it’s not going to be what Elizabeth is expecting.”
“Look, I’m already nervous. You don’t need to put so much effort into trying to rattle me.”
“I don’t know what you’re all keyed up about. It’s just a dinner date. Granted, with a woman whose sanity is questionable, given that she seems to like you.”
William’s glare blasted across his desk. Usually he didn’t mind her teasing, but right now he didn’t have the patience for it.
“Oh, lighten up,” she retorted. “I’m kidding, obviously. What are you going to wear?”
He picked up a pen and began to roll it between his fingers. “My new dinner jacket.”
“Whoa! You’re pulling out all the stops.”
“It’s Tuesday afternoon. She’s leaving for California on Friday morning. Precisely what should I be waiting for?”
“Point taken. So, then, is there going to be a tie on your doorknob tonight? The universal sign for ‘Action within, don’t come in’?”
“Sonya, you’re crossing the line.”
“I just keep thinking, a romantic evening under the stars, your bedroom just a few floors away ….”
“Stop it.” William snapped, his nostrils flaring. “Now.”
“I’m sorry.” She grimaced and shook her head. “I’m so used to the way Richard talks about his exploits, I forgot that there are still some gentlemen left in the world.”
“Apology accepted, but that’s a topic I do not intend to discuss with you, now or ever.”
“Understood and, again, I’m sorry. Look, I never got any lunch, so I’m going downstairs for a sandwich. You didn’t eat either, did you? Why not come along and have a snack.”
“No, thanks. I have some things to do before tonight.”
William bounded up the stairs, restless anticipation giving him extra energy, though he paid the price with a brief dizzy spell at the third floor landing. He had imagined sitting with Elizabeth in the library, strolling with her in the garden, and showing her the exotic blooms in the greenhouse, and this evening was his chance to see those visions realized.
But there were other, even more tantalizing visions: Elizabeth nestled in his lap in his leather armchair, sharing his whirlpool tub, and, above all, intimately entwined with him in his bed. He had been embarrassed by Sonya’s remarks not because she was suggesting an unthinkable idea, but because he had thought of it himself. His desire for Elizabeth had escalated to an unprecedented level under the influence of her imminent departure from New York.
The question was, did she share his sense of urgency? Although he didn’t delude himself that her feelings were equal to his, the physical attraction between them was powerful and seemed to be mutual. But he had rarely been faced with the dilemma of guessing if a woman was amorously inclined. His past female companions had usually made their interest in him clear, and for that reason he could not recall ever being refused when making sexual overtures. But now he would tread in unfamiliar territory.
And no woman, aside from those who lived under this roof, had ever set foot in his rooms on the third floor. He hadn’t wanted to share the intimacy of his private retreat, at least not until he found the right woman with whom to share it. Now he had found her, but a practical issue remained. Bachelors who lived alone had privacy in which to conduct their sex lives; William, living with his grandmother, his sister, and a motherly housekeeper, was constantly under a microscope. For that reason, if anything was going to happen after dinner, it would probably be at her apartment when he took her home. But the prospect of bringing her to his room and creating memories to sustain him once she was far away might prove too tempting to resist. He didn’t truly expect it to happen—this was only their second date, after all—but he decided to prepare, just in case.
The word “prepare” reminded him of an entirely different issue. He was embarrassed to realize that he hadn’t been with a woman, or even anticipated being with one, for long enough that he had forgotten about protection. Allen was standing by, but this errand was too private to share even with his trusted driver. Instead, he would walk to the nearest drugstore. He had skipped his run today and the exercise might help him to relax.
He fetched his wallet from the dresser, intending to leave at once, but first he conducted a quick inspection. Would she like his bedroom? Would she be comfortable here? Everything was neat and well appointed, of course, but would she like the furniture, the paintings on the walls, the fireplace?
Next he stepped onto his balcony. Perhaps tomorrow morning she would join him here for breakfast. He imagined her sitting across the table, looking delectable in one of his bathrobes, her cloud of dark hair tousled from a night of passion. With a contented sigh, he grasped the balcony’s iron railing and turned his face up to the warm mid-day sun.
“Oh, my gosh, was that the buzzer?” Elizabeth called out frantically.
Sally, her roommate, appeared in the bathroom doorway. “Yeah. You want me to get it?”
“I should have known he’d be exactly on time.”
“Should I buzz him into the building?”
Elizabeth stared at her nowhere-near-ready reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Yes, please.”
Her daily phone calls with William had continued through the remainder of his stay in Chicago, though they had taken on a more serious tone with her departure from New York looming. Last night he had called her after arriving home from the airport and they had talked for over an hour. He had refused to name the restaurant he had chosen for dinner; despite her best attempts to trick him into blurting it out, he had resolutely kept his secret.
Sally popped her head into the bathroom. “Okay, he’s on his way up.”
“Do me a favor. Once he gets here, talk to him while I finish getting ready, okay?”
“I can’t. I have to go or I’ll be late for work.”
Elizabeth scowled at her hair. She had just finished arranging it in an up-do, one a little more elaborate than her skill level could support. She pulled at one of the curls that fell alongside her face. “I just don’t know about my hair. It seems too … I don’t know, like I’m trying to be all sophisticated and pretentious.”
“Lizzy, your hair looks great, and it’s not pretentious.”
Elizabeth dashed into the bedroom to finish dressing. “Well, I guess it’s okay. He did say we were going to a dress-up sort of place. Zip me up?”
Sally complied, and Elizabeth turned to face her. “How do I look?”
“Fantastic. You’re going to knock him on his butt when he sees you.”
Elizabeth inspected herself in the mirror. “But this dress is so tight. How did I ever let you talk me into buying it?”
“It’s not that tight. You’re just not used to clothes that fit properly. Besides, live a little. How often do you get to have dinner with a famous millionaire?”
“He’s not … well, okay, he is a famous millionaire, but it doesn’t really seem that way when we talk. He’s just … William. I can’t explain it.”
“Yeah, just William, who can afford to send you a dozen roses every day for almost a week.”
They both flinched when they heard the knock at the door. “You ready?” Sally asked.
“I need to fix my make-up.”
“Your make-up looks fine. Look, I’ve gotta go, but I’ll tell him that you’ll be ready soon. Have fun tonight, and don’t wait up. I’m seeing Craig after my shift and we’ll probably go back to his place.”
“Thanks for everything, Sally. I know I’ve been a little neurotic.”
“You have, but I get it. A girl doesn’t have dinner with one of the most eligible bachelors in New York every day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Sally closed the bedroom door behind her, and Elizabeth heard the muffled sounds of her greeting to William and his reply. Elizabeth re-applied her lipstick, grabbed her purse, and, with a deep breath, opened the bedroom door.
William was standing in the living room with his back to her, inspecting her CD collection. Elizabeth cringed. A large number of them featured none other than William Darcy; in fact, she owned nearly everything he had ever recorded. He would probably think she had a secret shrine to him in a closet somewhere.
He turned, and her eyes widened. She had never seen him look more handsome or more commanding than he did tonight. He wore an impeccably tailored double-breasted tuxedo with a pleated white shirt and a black bow tie. She was acutely aware of his height, the breadth of his shoulders, and a powerful air of … what’s the word? Virility. He oozes virility.
William simply stared at her, his mouth hanging open. He knew that he must look like the village idiot, but he couldn’t help himself.
Her eyes were brilliant, framed by a dark fringe of lashes he had never noticed before. Her hair was swept up, revealing her graceful neck and shoulders. Her lips curved into exactly the sort of warm, welcoming smile he had often imagined receiving from her. But when his gaze continued downward, he lost the ability to think. Her black dress was simple, with a round neck and short sleeves, but it was tightly fitted, showing off the curves that kept him awake at night.
“You look beautiful,” he croaked, and then he remembered the parcel clutched in his hand. He unrolled the tissue paper, revealing a single red rosebud, the lower half of the stem now crushed.
“I decided to make the delivery myself today,” he said, extending the rose toward her. “I suppose I should have left it to the professionals.”
She took the flower from him. “Thank you; it’s beautiful. I’ll just cut the stem shorter and it’ll be fine.”
“I know I’ve sent you plenty of flowers already, but I thought you could make room for one more.”
“Of course I can, especially one this beautiful.” She stepped close to him, looking up at him through her lashes.
His hands on her shoulders, he drew her gently toward him. Their lips were only a few inches apart when the front door opened and Sally strode into the living room. Elizabeth stepped away from him.
“Hello again,” Sally said. “Would you believe I forgot my wallet? Won’t get far without that. I think I left it in the jacket I wore earlier.” She sprinted past them into the bedroom.
“I guess we might as well get going,” Elizabeth said with a rueful smile. “Let me just put the rose in some water first.”
They left the apartment together, William’s hand resting possessively on the small of Elizabeth’s back. Just as the elevator arrived, Sally rushed out to join them.
“Oh, good; got here just in time. We can ride down together.”
William nodded and did his best to smile. Elizabeth’s eyes met his, and the wry amusement he saw relieved his frustration. He touched her hand and felt her fingers entwine with his.
When they exited the building, Allen opened the car door. Sally looked at William. “I know three’s a crowd, but I was already running late before I forgot my wallet. Please, please, could you drop me at work on your way to wherever you’re going?”
He forced a weak smile onto his face. “Of course,” he replied, his voice sounding cooler than he had intended.
She scrambled into the back seat, and after an apologetic glance at William, Elizabeth followed suit. He settled into the passenger side of the front seat in gloomy silence, hoping this wasn’t an omen for the rest of the evening.
It seemed to take at least an hour to reach the Tribeca nightclub where Sally tended bar. When she was gone at last, he joined Elizabeth in the back seat for the remainder of the trip.
“I’m sorry about Sally inviting herself along,” she said. “If it helps at all, she was running late for work because she helped me get ready.”
“Then she’s forgiven.”
“She helped me shop for my dress too. In fact, she’s the one who picked it.”
“Then she’s more than forgiven,” he murmured.
He took her hand, encouraged by her shy smile in response. As the car proceeded uptown, he slid closer to her, inhaling the scent of jasmine and vanilla that so often seemed to permeate his dreams. He knew, without the slightest doubt, that it was going to be a perfect evening.