Elizabeth wasn’t naturally a morning person, but she was accustomed to getting up early. She often taught morning classes, and on her days off from teaching there was always plenty of work waiting to be done or a dance class to attend. This morning, though, she couldn’t seem to drag herself out of bed.
Her head ached and her vision was blurred. She had finally fallen asleep some time after five o’clock, only to be awakened at seven when an ambulance streaked past her building. Since then she had been lying in bed staring at the orchid and trying to bribe herself to get up.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to the kitchen and make a nice strong pot of coffee?” she asked herself, surprised by how hoarse she sounded. “Wouldn’t coffee taste delicious right now?” This prospect finally galvanized her into action; she sat up and rubbed her throbbing temples.
The coffee pot was half full of an unappetizing sludge that smelled like burned toast; she had forgotten to turn off the warmer last night. While fresh coffee was brewing, she went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. She looked like Medusa, with red, puffy eyes and a wild tangle of frizz where her hair was supposed to be.
She poured a mug of coffee and took it back to bed, huddling under the covers. If he had gotten his way, he would be lying next to her now. She wondered what he would look like with his eyes only half open, his hair mussed, and his jaw covered in stubble. Absolutely adorable, no doubt.
No. More likely he’d be long gone; he wouldn’t have spent the night. Once he’d gotten what he wanted, why hang around the low-rent district?
But the harder she tried to keep her anger simmering, the harder it became. Instead, flashes of her own behavior began to torment her. She had lost control, screaming like a shrew. Too much wine, too much anxiety … and too much overreacting. She seemed to overreact to so many things these days, always regretting it later, and she didn’t know why.
The phone in the kitchen rang. She considered letting voicemail get it in case it was William, but discarded that option as cowardly. She stumbled out of bed and ran to the kitchen.
“Hello?” The thin, weak sound was barely recognizable as her voice.
“Liz? is that you? It’s Char.”
Elizabeth felt a peculiar mixture of relief and regret that it wasn’t William. “Char! You’re up early.”
“Yeah. Busy day today.”
Elizabeth carried the phone back to bed and slipped under the covers. “What’s up?”
“Jane called last night. She has to stay an extra day in Sacramento, so I’m picking you up at the airport tomorrow.”
Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been counting on seeing Jane. “Thank you,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Are you okay? You sound upset.”
Charlotte’s sympathetic voice was all it took; Elizabeth started crying again.
“Liz, what’s wrong?”
In a halting voice, Elizabeth told Charlotte the story of the party and the aftermath. When she finished, Charlotte was quiet for a moment, and then asked a question. “Okay, I have to be sure of one thing first. Did he force you to do anything, or even try to force you? Because if he did, I will personally fly to New York and beat the crap out of him.”
Elizabeth exhaled slowly, feeling strangely calm now that she had told her story. “No,” she said quietly. “No, he stopped as soon as I told him to.”
“Okay, good. Now, as for that garbage about blaming you and saying that you wanted it as much as he did ….”
“The thing is, he wasn’t entirely wrong.” Elizabeth hesitated. “Char, when I’m with him I … I’ve never felt anything like this. It’s almost impossible to resist him, and mostly I don’t want to resist, even though I think I should. Last night, I was nervous about what was going to happen, really from the moment we left the party. I probably shouldn’t have let him come back to my apartment, but it was the last time I was going to see him, probably ever, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. And once we were on the sofa together, I almost stopped him a few times, because things were heating up so fast. But then he’d kiss me again, or touch me, and I wouldn’t want him to stop anymore. Until he started trying to take off my blouse.”
“Do you think he noticed those times when you got nervous?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not.”
“So, like he said, he probably thought you were both on the same page.”
“Maybe.” Elizabeth had to admit that, as confused as she herself had been, she shouldn’t have expected him to know what she wanted. Still, that wasn’t the important point. She raised her voice. “But since when does that mean I’ve lost the right to stop things if they go too far?”
“It doesn’t. If he said that, it’s another fly-out-and-beat-the-crap-out-of-him offense.” Charlotte paused. “But I have to ask. Are you sure he said you were wrong to tell him to stop? That’s a real macho shithead attitude, and he just doesn’t seem like the type. I mean, he’s rich so he’s used to having his own way, but this is an entirely different thing.”
“I know. I couldn’t believe it.”
“I don’t mean to doubt you; I just didn’t think he was like that. I wonder if all the intensity—heated argument, emotions stirred up—made him say something he usually wouldn’t say. Although that’s no excuse. It’s still macho shithead territory, no matter what made him say it.”
“Or maybe the real William finally came out of hiding, and that is what he’s like.” Elizabeth paused a moment to take a long, calming breath. “I was already furious by then. And when he accused me of being a tease, and then he said it was too late to stop, that was when I really lost it and threw him out.” But had he actually said those things? Now, in the light of day, she wasn’t certain.
“I don’t blame you; I would have kicked him out, too. Well, I take it back. I probably wouldn’t have told him to stop in the first place, so there wouldn’t have been a fight, and we’d have been in bed by then.”
Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. “I think I’m starting to appreciate your approach to men.”
“It’s a lot less complicated and a lot more fun. But, seriously, if you wanted things to go slower, he needed to respect that.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Which he might have done if I’d just told him so calmly, instead of screaming at him.” She paused for a moment. “But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt on most of what he said, there’s still the lie he told about loving me.”
“If it was a lie. He’s been sending you flowers every day. He called you on the phone every night while he was out of town. He sent you a comfort food extravaganza when you wouldn’t go out to dinner with him. And he took you to his house and introduced you to his family. Seriously, Liz, what does a guy have to do to prove that he’s crazy about you? Do you think he does all that for every woman he meets?”
“The flowers, probably. The dinner at his house, no, according to his housekeeper. But—”
“Don’t say that he only did it to get you into bed.”
“Why not? It’s probably true.”
Charlotte sighed in a loud gust. “You’ve been saying all along that he can have any woman he wants, and while that’s extreme, I bet he doesn’t hear the word ‘no’ from women very often. So doesn’t it seem like a waste of time for him to put all this effort into getting you into the sack, if he can just walk into any bar in Manhattan and score all the female companionship he wants?”
“I get what you’re saying. But it’s not the first time a guy has gone to a lot of trouble when all he really wanted was to get me into bed. Michael was so charming; he made it seem like I was the most important thing in his world.”
“I know. But that doesn’t mean William is the same.”
“I think what made it worse last night was that ….” Elizabeth paused and took a deep breath. “You never met Michael, but he looks like William.”
“There are two men in the world who look like that?” Charlotte let out a whistle. “Wow.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile. “They don’t look exactly alike, but they’re both tall with broad shoulders, dark wavy hair, and brown eyes, and their features are kind of similar. It’s probably one of the things that attracted me to Michael in the first place: he looked sort of like my idol.” She paused for a deep breath. “So last night when William said ‘I love you,’ just like Michael did, something snapped.”
“Déjà vu, huh? I’m sorry.”
“As for William, okay, I admit it. He likes me or he wouldn’t have done all that stuff you mentioned. But love? No way.”
“I get what you’re saying, and I’m certainly no expert on love,” Charlotte replied. “But you’re leaving town, and that might be intensifying his emotions. Maybe that’s making it feel like love.”
Elizabeth couldn’t deny that Charlotte’s explanation made some sense. As her departure had grown closer, William had been much more on her mind; he might have been similarly affected. “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter since I’ll only be in New York for one more day. But I hate to leave things this way between us.”
“The two of you need to talk, and I mean really talk. It sounds like you’ve made a lot of assumptions about him instead of asking him what’s going on, and I bet he’s doing the same thing where you’re concerned.”
“I hate to admit it, but that’s good advice.”
“Well, yeah,” Charlotte retorted. “After all, I’m older and wiser.”
Elizabeth snickered. “You’re not even two months older than I am.”
“I’m talking experience, not calendar years. On that basis, I could be your grandmother.”
“Okay, grandma. Don’t forget your cane when you go out today.”
Charlotte laughed. “Speaking of going out, I’ve gotta run. I’m presenting a paper at Stanford this morning and traffic is going to be a nightmare.”
“Thanks for listening, and for the advice. I feel much better now.”
“Thank me by calling William,” Charlotte shot back. “I think you’ll both be happier for it.”
They said their goodbyes, and Elizabeth hung up the phone, her mind a jumble of contradictory thoughts. She stared at the phone in silence for several seconds and almost reached for it, but then she shook her head. She needed time to think first.
One thing was certain: it was time to get moving. She had hidden under the covers for long enough. She took a deep breath, glanced at the orchid once more, and headed for the bathroom to take her shower.
“Hey, Will, how about that one? Mmm, nice.” Richard’s lascivious gaze was glued to a tall blonde in a jogging bra and tiny running shorts.
William made no response, so Richard tried again. “Oh, how I love running at the reservoir. The scenery is spectacular, and the New York skyline ain’t bad either.”
“Look, I came out this morning to keep you company on your run, leaving behind a hot brunette, I might add. The least you could do is talk to me.”
“Sorry. I have a lot of things on my mind,” William answered in a tight, breathless voice.
They had just finished their first circuit around the reservoir in Central Park. At this point in their run, William was usually in annoyingly good form, but not this morning. Richard shot a worried glance at his cousin. “Are you okay, old man?”
“I’m fine,” William answered in a tone clearly designed to discourage further questions.
Richard wasn’t that easily intimidated. “I don’t think so, cuz. You’re out of breath, and I’m not having any trouble keeping up with you. When you consider the energy my bad habits consume, versus the supposed health benefits of your monkish lifestyle, something’s gotta be wrong. I mean, look at us. We’re moving so slowly, that blonde with the nice ass zoomed right past us.”
“I didn’t get much sleep last night.” William slowed his pace to a walk, breathing hard as he wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Lack of sleep wouldn’t affect you this much. Come to think of it, this isn’t the first time you’ve had problems during a run lately.”
William shrugged. “I’ve been sleeping poorly for a while now.”
“You ought to go see your doctor.”
“I have an appointment this afternoon.”
“Good. If something happened to you, I’d have no choice but to drink too much and shag women twenty-four hours a day, instead of just part-time like I do now. You know how I’d hate that.”
“That’s why I embarked on my career,” William said with mock gravity. “So I could save you from your baser instincts.”
Richard grinned. “Speaking of baser instincts, I want to hear about your evening with the delectable Ms. Bennet. And you know which part of the evening I’m talking about. Did you get lucky?”
“Don’t be crass, Richard, if you can help it.”
“I can’t help it, and you know that. But you didn’t answer my question. What time did you leave her place this morning? I assume that’s why you didn’t get much sleep.”
“None of your damn business.”
Richard wiped his wristband across his forehead. “Lighten up, old man. I’m just looking out for your welfare. After all, sex is the best stress reliever I know. I don’t have any personal experience with celibacy, but I’ve heard it can be a frustrating state.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” William muttered.
“That’s probably why you’re such a physical wreck. Your body is rebelling. It wants to have some fun, but Brother William refuses to indulge.”
William stared at Richard in glacial silence.
“Seriously,” Richard continued, “you’re a bundle of nerves. So I’ll ask again. Did you get some last night?”
“And I reiterate, that’s none of your business.”
“Oh, come on,” Richard retorted cheerfully. “It’s not exactly a secret that you’ve got a serious case of the hots for this girl. Not that I blame you. She’s pretty, intelligent, great rack … and besides that, there’s something in her eyes that makes me think she’d be a tigress in bed. I don’t see any claw marks on you, but—”
“Stop talking about her that way.”
“Come on, Will, don’t be such a tight-ass. I’m just saying that she—”
“I’m serious,” William snapped, his eyes blazing. “Stop talking about her that way, or I swear to God I’ll make you regret it.”
Richard stared at William, astonished at the ferocity in his cousin’s voice. “Sorry, old man. Didn’t mean to step over the line.”
“What’s the deal with you, anyway? You haven’t gone and done something stupid like falling in love, have you?”
William didn’t answer right away, perhaps because he was breathing hard again. “You’re right,” he replied. “That would be stupid.”
“Glad to hear you say that. I was starting to wonder if you’d gone sentimental on me and had something serious going on with this girl.”
“There’s nothing serious going on. Change the subject.”
“Okay, new subject arriving now. Are you and Georgie and Chuckles still going to Pemberley next week?”
“That’s the plan.” William seemed to struggle to get the words out.
Richard frowned at William. “Something’s wrong with you. I mean, seriously. Let’s sit and rest for a few minutes.”
“I keep telling you, I’m fine,” William said, his labored breathing belying his statement.
Richard shook his head. It was pointless to push William once he had dug in his heels. “Okay, I’ll drop it. Anyway, about Pemberley. I was thinking I might join you for a few days. Sun and surf, girls in string bikinis, maybe a planter’s punch or three in the afternoon.”
William didn’t respond.
Richard’s genial banter died in his throat as William stumbled toward the wrought iron railing lining the path. He gripped it, his face ghostly white, and clutched his chest, gasping for air.
“Will, what’s wrong?”
As Richard looked on in horror, William’s eyes went blank and he slid along the fence to the ground.