“Are you finished packing?”
“Not yet,” Elizabeth sighed.
Jon Prentiss, with whom she was currently dancing, grinned at her. “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow, eh?”
“I’ve had dozens of errands to run,” she retorted. “It’s hard to pick up and move with only a week’s notice. Besides, I don’t have that much stuff, just clothes and books and things like that. I have all day and night tomorrow; I’ll get it done.”
“That’s a depressing way to spend your last night in New York. If I didn’t have to work, I’d come over and keep you company.”
“I’m better off on my own; I’ll be more efficient if I don’t have any distractions.” She scanned the room as she said this, frowning and nibbling her lower lip.
“Speaking of distractions, why isn’t he here yet?”
“Oh, come on, sweetie. I heard all about Mr. Tall, Dark, and Shaggable. A private dinner at his place last night? Sounds positively delicious.”
“It was.” Elizabeth barely suppressed a sentimental sigh. No need to give Jon additional fodder to use in teasing her.
“Excellent. It’s not every day a friend of mine lands a rich Upper East Side type, much less one who’s famous.”
“I haven’t landed anybody. We’ve just had a few dates.”
“Oh, sure.” He snickered, twirling her in a tight circle. “You forget, I’ve seen the Rose Garden Formerly Known as Your Apartment. Is there any color he hasn’t sent you?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re making a big deal about nothing.”
“And supposedly he’s coming tonight, which explains why you’re all dressed up.”
“I am not all dressed up.” Elizabeth’s protest sounded hollow even to her own ears.
“Mmm hmm.” He cast a sidelong glance at her. “Because you always wear your hair all fluffed out, and you wear make-up every single day. And your closet is just full of little blouses that show off the girls.”
He chuckled. “Don’t be embarrassed. You’re gorgeous, and he’s going to think you look good enough to eat, nothing off-color intended. Although ….”
She shook her head, smiling. “You showed remarkable restraint just now. Don’t spoil the moment.”
“Fair enough. Let’s get back to last night. Fabulous food, I’m sure.”
“Oh, yes. Everything was delicious. Plus, each course was paired with a wine chosen from, ahem, the wine cellar.”
“Very nice. And I assume that I know what—or should I say who—was for dessert.” His suggestive tone left no doubt of his meaning.
“Of course not. It was only our second date. Or third, if you count coffee in San Francisco.”
“You never let yourself have any fun.”
“For the millionth time, you and I have different definitions of fun.”
“Not so different. Tall, dark, and shaggable sounds good to me, too.”
She smiled weakly and managed to sneak a glance at Jon’s wrist, checking his watch. It was almost 11:00. William had left a message saying that he would be late, but the party had been in progress for more than two hours. In addition, that afternoon Sally had suggested that he might not mix well with the struggling actors and musicians who made up most of their circle of friends. Elizabeth, who hadn’t forgotten William standing in a corner in imperious solitude at Jane’s rehearsal dinner, wondered if she had made a mistake inviting him.
His phone message that afternoon had been terse, simply explaining that he would be delayed without offering a reason or an apology, yet the night before he had begged to see her tonight. Was he having second thoughts? Had he found something better to do than hanging out with a bunch of starving musicians? Something better than saying goodbye to me.
But she refused to let his absence ruin her party The private room in the back of the club, full almost to overflowing, crackled with energy and good spirits. The various musicians among the guests were taking turns at the microphone, providing nearly continuous entertainment. At the moment, a rock music jam session was in progress, and Jon was leading her expertly through an intricate series of steps on the dance floor. It would be foolish to let a dark-eyed, brooding pianist spoil her evening.
If he wanted to see her, he would show up sooner or later. If not … at the risk of sounding like Scarlett O’Hara, she would think about that tomorrow.
When William saw the lighted sign proclaiming “Club MetroMania,” he felt like Columbus sighting land after months at sea. His heart thudding in his chest, he stepped into the dimly-lit club. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he eyed the ostentatiously hip people clustered around the bar. Others filled the dance floor, swaying in time to the percussive beat booming from massive speakers. The music made his teeth vibrate and gave him an instant headache. He searched in vain for Elizabeth or Sally, the only two party guests he would recognize.
Then he saw a door open in the back, and he realized that the party was probably in a private room. He made his way through the crowd, relieved to note that his black sweater and slacks would allow him to blend in, and passed through the door.
He saw Elizabeth almost immediately. She was dancing with a man with a shaved head whose movements proclaimed him to be a professional dancer. From the closeness of their bodies while dancing, they seemed to be intimately acquainted.
The music ended, and storm clouds gathered in his head as Elizabeth and her partner shared and embrace and a kiss. William wondered if this was the reason for Sally’s surprise that Elizabeth had invited him. The happy couple lingered on the dance floor, talking and laughing. Her eyes flashed with the energy and spirit that William loved. Although he couldn’t bear to see her with another man, neither could he wrench his eyes away from her.
The band resumed playing, and Elizabeth’s partner claimed her for another dance. William, his stomach churning, considered a variety of actions, including stalking onto the dance floor and, at great peril to his hands, flattening his rival with a punch on the jaw. Then her gaze landed on him, and her smile stole his breath. She stopped dancing and spoke briefly to her partner, who turned to stare at William.
“Hi,” she said softly when she reached his side. She smiled up at him, and his mouth went dry. He wanted to kiss her until she was clinging to him, moaning his name. His hands itched to span the narrow strip of bare stomach revealed between the hem of her white top and the waist of her jeans. But most of all, he simply wanted to bask in her presence.
Her smile faded, and she stood twirling a lock of hair around her finger. After an awkward pause, he realized that he was the cause of her uneasiness; he had been staring at her in silence for too long. He cleared his throat. “Hello,” he rasped. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“I’m just glad you’re here,” she replied, her smile reappearing.
He leaned forward to kiss her, but was interrupted by a loud “Ahem!” Her dance partner had joined them, flashing a jovial grin. “Hello! I’m Jon Prentiss. And you must be Mr. Tall—”
“William Darcy,” Elizabeth interrupted. William saw her stern glance at Jon and his answering smirk, and wondered what private message they were sharing.
With a curt nod, he shook Jon’s extended hand. “Sorry to interrupt your dance,” he said coldly, making it clear through his tone that the opposite was true.
“No problem,” Jon replied breezily, wrapping his arm around Elizabeth’s waist. “But you owe me another dance, sweetie, or two; no, let’s make it three. See you later.” He kissed her cheek and sauntered off in the direction of the bar.
William stepped close to Elizabeth and bent his head to kiss her. To his dismay, she drew away almost as soon as their lips met. “I thought you’d be here earlier than this,” she said.
“It took me a long time to get here.”
“I was starting to think maybe you’d changed your mind.”
“Of course not. I said I was coming.” It hurt him that she doubted his word. He deserved better, especially considering the tribulations he had endured to be with her.
Her jaw tightened and a frown line formed between her eyebrows. He belatedly recognized that his retort had sounded harsh, but before he could apologize, she shrugged and flashed a quick, tight smile. “Well, the main thing is, you’re here now.”
An hour later, William sat at a small table in a shadowy corner, with only a half-empty glass of scotch for company. Elizabeth was dancing again, and William fought a powerful urge to storm the dance floor, sling her over his shoulder, and haul her out of the club. His rational self understood that she needed to circulate, but his more primitive instincts weren’t swayed by rational argument. She was his date. Yet there he sat while she got warm and cozy with every other man in the room. He drummed his fingers on the table forcefully, his brow pulled down in a deep scowl.
Elizabeth’s partner spun her in a circle, and it seemed that William could hear her laughter above the raucous music. Powerful waves of jealousy gnawed at his stomach, and the unfamiliar sensation bewildered him.
He made his way to the bar to get another drink. Ordinarily he restricted himself to two glasses of wine in an evening, and he had already consumed that much at the Dalton event, but this was no ordinary occasion. He had surprised himself on an earlier trip to the bar by requesting a glass of their oldest Macallan on the rocks. “In fact,” he had said, “make it a double.”
Everyone else was chatting, laughing, and dancing. As ever, he was the outsider, unwelcome and ignored. The only people to approach him had been women attempting to lure him onto the dance floor, but he had refused, wearing his practiced mask of indifference. He had no plans to make a fool of himself by dancing to rock music in a room full of professional dancers; were it not for that, he would long since have asked Elizabeth to dance.
His eyes devoured her as he gulped his scotch. The graceful sway of her hips as she moved ignited a painful wave of desire that increased to excruciating levels. I need to get a grip on myself. He snorted at the thought, his lips twisting in an unpleasant smirk. I already did that in the shower this morning. Didn’t help. He gritted his teeth, angry with himself for wanting her so much, and with her for making him feel this way.
The music stopped at last. He was heartened by the sight of Elizabeth moving in his direction, but her progress was impeded by a group of new arrivals who surrounded her, speaking all at once. She darted a quick glance in his direction before the group swallowed her up, propelling her toward the bar.
He emptied his glass in a single swallow, grimacing as it burned its way down his throat. After everything he had gone through to be with her this evening, it was humiliating to be cast aside this way. It was time to stop embarrassing himself by yearning for a woman who didn’t care about him.
Still, he couldn’t leave without saying a private farewell, one more chance to memorize the look in her eyes after he kissed her. At least her body responded to him, even if he couldn’t find a way into her heart.
Elizabeth turned toward William’s table and saw that it was empty. Her eyes scanned the room, but she failed to find the face she sought. Had he left without saying goodbye?
Sally had been right. He had made no attempt to mingle, instead sitting in forbidding solitude whenever she had to leave him to visit with other guests. He had eventually lapsed into silence even in her presence, scarcely responding to her remarks. Surprised at his failure to ask her to dance, she had asked him, but he had refused in a brusque tone. The darker his mood had grown, the more she had begun to avoid his table. Why had he bothered to come to the party?
He had been sitting there just a minute or two earlier, so he couldn’t have gone far. Her pride rebelled at the idea of chasing him; if he intended to leave without a word, so be it. But for all her tough self-talk, she couldn’t let him slip out of her life this way. She needed to look into his eyes once more, even if the warmth she saw there existed only in her imagination. She threaded her way through the crowded room but saw no sign of him. Perhaps he was outside.
As soon as she stepped onto the sidewalk, she saw him standing on the corner, his back to her, and relief flooded her. His broad shoulders were slumped, and she sensed an almost palpable aura of loneliness around him.
When she spoke his name, his back stiffened and he turned slowly to face her, his mouth set in a grim line. He crossed his arms over his chest and regarded her in silence.
“I wondered where you were,” she said. “We haven’t had much of a chance to talk.”
“That’s not my fault.”
The coldness in his voice shocked her, but she stifled her angry retort. “I didn’t mean to spend so much time away from you,” she said. “But certainly you understand that I need to talk to everybody; I’m the guest of honor.”
“Of course,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders, but the cold glint in his eyes didn’t match his words.
“Why are you out here all alone?”
“I needed some air.” His tone was cool and dismissive, but she saw the muscles in his jaw working.
“William, what’s wrong?”
She summoned every ounce of patience she possessed and kept her voice calm. “You’re obviously angry about something. Tell me what it is.”
“I wouldn’t want to keep you from your other guests.” His words were drenched in bitterness.
“You do understand that this is my last chance to say goodbye to my friends, right? This is the last time I’ll ever see most of them. Besides, at a party, people are supposed to mingle, not stay parked at their tables all evening.”
“I thought you asked me here as your date.”
“That didn’t mean I intended to spend every moment stapled to your side. Besides, even if that had been my plan, it would have been impossible, considering how late you got here.”
“You didn’t seem to be suffering from my absence.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, scowling.
Her temper flared. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“When I got here, you were on the dance floor and your partner was all over you. And then I saw you kiss him.”
“Just what are you implying?”
“You tell me.” His eyes bored into hers. “You and Jon looked pretty cozy.”
“Jon? You think Jon and I are—” She stifled a giggle and arranged her features in a dispassionate expression. “Jon is just a good friend.”
“I have eyes, Elizabeth. I saw the two of you practically making out on the dance floor.”
Setting William’s mind at ease would have been a simple matter, but she didn’t owe him any explanations when he was being so unreasonable. “Believe what you want,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “but I’m telling you that he’s a friend, and that’s all. Besides, what was I supposed to do when my date hadn’t arrived yet? Just sit around and pout?”
“I got here as soon as I could.”
He eyed her, obviously expecting a response. She stared back, challenging him with her silence.
His hand combed roughly through his hair and he broke the silence. “I would have been here sooner,” he said, “but things kept going wrong.”
“Gran needed me to go to a charity event that she couldn’t attend. And I was there longer than I planned.” He frowned and pressed his lips together, his eyes averted.
She sensed that the delay somehow involved a woman, and he didn’t want to admit it. She brushed that aside, grateful that they were having an actual conversation instead of just trading verbal jabs.
He continued. “Then I had to go home and change, or else show up here in a tuxedo.”
“That would have been fine, though I like what you’re wearing tonight. You’re the best-looking guy at the party.”
She hadn’t intended to make that admission, but she was glad to see the harsh lines on his face soften. “Thank you,” he murmured. “And you look beautiful.”
Elizabeth was annoyed to feel her pulse quicken. He had acted like the hind end of a horse ever since he arrived, but the second he said a few kind words, she was ready to fling herself into his arms. She took a deep breath and stepped back. “Let’s go back inside.”
“I thought you wanted to hear about my problems getting here.”
“You mean there’s more?”
“Allen was driving Gran, so I had to take a taxi home to change, and then down here.” William’s tone was awash in self-pity.
“Two whole cab rides?” She gasped. “Oh, the horror!”
He raised an eyebrow. “Now you’re making fun of me.”
“A little,” she replied with a grin. “But I’m impressed that you made such a sacrifice to be here. And on the bright side, at least you didn’t have to take the subway.”
She could see him trying not to smile, but finally his dimples appeared. Their eyes met, and she felt a magnetic pull. “Come on,” she said with a rueful smile. “Let’s get back to the party.”
She extended her hand, and after a moment of hesitation he accepted the invitation. Hands clasped, they walked back into the club and made their way through the crowd.
William was glad that he and Elizabeth had cleared the air. Now, if only the fog in his head would clear. He wasn’t exactly drunk … or maybe he was, at least a little; it was hard to be sure. He never allowed himself to get drunk, and it was an unfamiliar feeling. His balance was off and his brain seemed to be running in a slower gear than usual.
When they reached the door to the back room, Elizabeth stopped and turned to him. “Why didn’t you want to dance with me earlier?” she asked.
“I was waiting for a slow song.”
“I wish you’d said something; I could have requested one. I thought you just didn’t want to dance with me.”
The door to the back room flew open. “There you are!” Sally exclaimed. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, Lizzy. It’s your turn to perform.”
“Me? Oh, no, not tonight.”
“Come on, soon-to-be-ex-roommate. This is your swan song. The guys have been waiting for you.” Sally gestured toward the stage area, which was now occupied by a small jazz band.
Elizabeth offered William an apologetic smile. “I used to sing with them, so it’s a reunion and a farewell performance rolled into one.”
For this inducement, William was willing to sit alone for a while longer. He claimed a seat directly in front of the band. To his surprise, Jon Prentiss plopped into the chair beside him.
“How you doin’?” Jon asked.
“Very well, thank you.” William knew he sounded priggish, but he couldn’t help it. Self-assured, swaggering men like Jon intimidated him.
“Lizzy’s quite a girl, isn’t she?”
“You seem to know her quite well,” William replied
Jon either missed or ignored William’s challenging tone. “Yeah, I do. I’m going to miss her.”
“So am I.” A wave of dark misery washed over William.
Jon patted William’s forearm sympathetically, and then looked at him in surprise. “Say, what kind of workouts do you do? You’re in pretty good shape for a guy who plays the piano for a living.”
An odd question, but at least he had a good answer. “I run almost every day, plus some weight training.”
“Well, it works for you. Not sure about the bottom half—you’ve been sitting down too much—but I bet it’s in good shape, too.”
William stared at Jon, at a loss for words. So it appeared that there was no need to be jealous of Jon and Elizabeth’s relationship after all. But why hadn’t she just explained?
A flourish from the drummer attracted the crowd’s attention. Elizabeth stepped to the microphone. “Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming tonight. It’s going to be hard to leave such good friends. I’ll miss you all very much, and you have an open invitation to visit me in San Francisco. I could go on, but I’d probably start crying, so instead I’ll say a special thank you to Jon and Sally for arranging the party.”
There was scattered applause. Jon popped out of his chair and offered a parody of a regal wave.
“And I’ve gotten my arm twisted into singing,” Elizabeth continued. “So here goes.”
Scattered applause greeted this comment, and the crowd fell silent. After a brief pause, Elizabeth began to sing.
A lovely stairway to the stars.
It would be heaven to climb to heaven with you.
She seemed at first to be avoiding looking at William, but soon their eyes locked, and he held her gaze as the song continued.
Out yonder where the blues begin.
The moon will guide us as we go drifting along.
Can’t we sail away on a lazy daisy petal
High on the crest of a hill?
Can’t we sail away on a little dream
And settle high on the crest of a thrill?
We’ll build a stairway to the stars,
A lovely stairway to the stars.
It would be heaven to climb to heaven with you.1
The song ended long before William was ready to drift back to earth. Elizabeth accepted her friends’ applause and hoots of approval and then left the stage area. The band began playing a reprise of “Stairway to the Stars,” this time as an instrumental arrangement. Elizabeth approached the table and extended her hand. With a dismissive nod to Jon, William rose to his feet and followed her to the dance floor.
They danced in silence until she giggled. “You know, this is the first time we’ve danced indoors, or when there were other people around.”
He chuckled. “You’re right. About time we did something conventional. But I think I preferred the atmosphere the other two times.”
“I forgot to thank you earlier for the orchid. I’ll treasure it.”
“If it’s too difficult to carry on the plane, I can get it professionally packed and shipped.”
“I’ll figure out a way to protect it. I’m not taking that much stuff with me.”
“I meant what I said in the note. I hope the orchid will remind you of me.”
Her only answer was to nestle closer, resting her head on his shoulder. They danced in silence as he imprinted every detail on his memory: the softness and warmth of her body against his, the enticing sweetness of her scent, the thick curtain of hair tumbling down her back. He would replay these memories many times in the days to come.
The music ended. While others on the dance floor applauded, William bent his head and brushed his lips against Elizabeth’s forehead. She looked up at him, her eyes luminous, and for a time he forgot to breathe.
“I have to kiss you,” he whispered. He lowered his head, but she drew back.
“Not here. Not now.” Yet her eyes were fastened on his lips.
“Why not?” Frustration nearly boiling over, he barely managed to keep his voice low. “You kissed Jon out here on the dance floor.”
“Jon is just a friend. When you kiss me, it’s different.”
William couldn’t resent hearing that his kisses meant something to her. “All right,” he said. “But you owe me a kiss, and I’m compounding interest even as we speak.”
His smile faded when he noted her uneasy expression. She began to speak, paused, and then began again. “William, I—”
“Lizzy, come here!” Three women sitting at a table near the dance floor gestured at Elizabeth. “We’ve been waiting all evening to hear about your job.”
His heart sank. She was about to be torn away from him again. But as he turned toward his table, preparing to resume his seat, she caught his hand. “Come with me; we’ll pull up another chair. That is, if you don’t mind being the only man at a table with four women.”
“I think I can survive.”
Retaining her grasp on his hand, she drew him forward to introduce him to her friends.
It was late by the time the last of the guests departed. William, Elizabeth, Sally, and Jon lounged at a table, all of them yawning at regular intervals. Allen was en route to the club in response to William’s phone call.
“Thanks to the two best friends in the world,” Elizabeth said. “It was a great party. But I’m so sorry Craig didn’t show up.”
“Who needs the big jerk?” Sally muttered. “Anyway, we’re broken up; why would he have come?”
“Hang in there,” Elizabeth replied gently. “I’m sure in another day or two he’ll come to his senses and crawl back to you, groveling.”
William wished Craig would come to his senses sooner than that. Instead of spending the night with her boyfriend, Sally would be hanging around the apartment, ruining William’s plans for private time with Elizabeth. All he had left to look forward to now was the short ride back to her apartment.
The group fell silent. Finally, Jon pulled Sally to her feet. “Come on, kiddo, let’s get a cab.”
“Wait a second,” Elizabeth said to Sally. “Jon lives in the opposite direction. William’s taking me home; why don’t you ride with us?”
William winced and his heart sank. Elizabeth had just deprived him of even a final few minutes alone with her. But then Sally saved the day. “Didn’t I tell you?” she said. “Jon and I are going to have a slumber party.”
“You’re going to do what?” Elizabeth asked.
“We have an early audition tomorrow morning, and Jon lives closer to the theater, so I’m going to crash on his sofa.”
Elizabeth frowned. “You’ve never mentioned this audition before.”
“We just found out about it yesterday,” Sally answered quickly.
William intercepted Jon’s smirk and understood the situation at once.
“What’s this audition for?” Elizabeth tilted her head to one side and eyed her friends.
“We’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,” Jon replied breezily. “Come on, Sal. Let’s make like a couple of babies and head out. If we don’t get some sleep we’ll be tripping over the bags under our eyes at the audition.”
William and Elizabeth accompanied Jon and Sally out of the club, and found Allen waiting. As he slid into the back seat of the car beside Elizabeth, four words echoed in William’s brain in a continuous loop:
Don’t screw this up.
1 “Stairway to the Stars,” words by Mitchell Parish; music by Matt Malneck and Frank Signorelli. Performed by Christiane Noll on Live at the West Bank Café, © 2003, Car Jam Records. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear an instrumental version (by Bill Evans) on Youtube.