Caroline sighed and shredded yet another napkin, adding it to the little paper blizzard already piled on her table. She had been sitting in the coffee shop just off the hospital’s main lobby for what seemed like hours, drinking bad coffee and staring discontentedly at the steady stream of people passing by.
She had swept triumphantly into the CCU with her best “angel of mercy” manner draped around her like a shining mantle, only to find William’s room empty. The nurse would only say that he was somewhere else in the hospital at present. “Besides, the only visitors allowed are family,” the nurse had added, while Caroline silently lamented not claiming to be his sister—or, better yet, his fiancée.
He was probably back in his room by now, and Caroline considered going upstairs to see him; she was certainly clever enough to sneak past the nurses. But if he was just back from the procedure, Rose and Georgiana would almost certainly be with him, and that would spoil everything. It was better to wait until she could see him alone, but she couldn’t bear to sit in the dismal coffee shop any longer. Saks was just a short cab ride away; a little retail therapy sounded like a perfect choice. And after she shopped for herself, she’d buy something for William, maybe some nice silk pajamas.
She snatched her purse from the chair next to her and stalked toward the hospital exit. As she approached the revolving door, she glanced toward the information desk and froze in dismay. Elizabeth Bennet stood there, speaking to the receptionist.
Caroline’s jaw clenched and her hands formed into fists. She wasn’t sure how to deal with this interloper, but until she could devise an effective strategy, she would monitor the situation from a safe distance. She followed Elizabeth toward the elevators, careful to stay out of her rival’s line of sight. Shopping would have to wait.
Elizabeth stepped off the elevator and looked around, hesitating, until she saw a sign directing her to the CCU. The security guard had reluctantly allowed her to leave her suitcase and backpack at the reception desk, but she had brought the orchid upstairs with her.
The plant hadn’t weathered the trip from her apartment very well. While emerging from the taxi at the hospital, she had bumped the orchid against the door frame, creasing the stem badly. She had removed the broken portion, with nearly half the blooms attached. Still, those that remained hadn’t lost their vivid beauty.
Her heart pounded as she approached his room. She bit her lip when she saw him through the doorway, his eyes closed, an IV line attached to his arm. She stepped into the room and set the orchid on a table. “Oh, William,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Two monitors mounted high above his head beeped quietly, but she didn’t look at them; she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He looked pale and seemed to have aged since she saw him last. With hesitant steps, she approached the bed and gazed down at him.
Suddenly, something began to beep—a shrill, insistent sound. She jumped, her heart racing, and hurried into the hall, nearly colliding with a nurse.
“It’s William—Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth cried, her voice taut with fear. “Something’s wrong!”
The nurse nodded. “I was on my way to check on him.” She entered the room with Elizabeth trailing at her heels and reset the monitor, silencing it. “It’s just time to change his IV.”
That, at least, was a relief. “What’s wrong with him? Since he’s in this unit I assume it’s something with his heart?” Elizabeth asked. She noted the nurse’s name, Wendy, on her ID badge.
“Are you a family member?” Wendy asked.
“No, I’m—” Elizabeth hesitated. “I’m … a friend.”
“I’m sorry, but I can only give out information to family members.” Wendy’s tone was kind but firm.
“It’s just that … can you at least tell me if he’s going to be okay? I mean, he’s not going to ….” Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to say the word “die.”
“He’s doing fine,” Wendy said with a smile.
“Oh, thank goodness!”
“His family should be back soon, and I’m sure they’ll fill you in on the details. And I hate to keep quoting rules,” Wendy said with a wince, “but we don’t allow flowers in this unit.” She tipped her head toward the orchid. “He’ll be able to have it once he’s moved to a regular patient room.”
Elizabeth stared at the orchid, wondering what to do. “Could you please keep it at the desk, for just a few minutes?”
“Sure, I can do that.” She picked up the pot and examined the plant. “This is just beautiful.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Thank you so much for your help.” Her eyes returned to William. “May I sit with him for a few minutes?”
Wendy hesitated, but something in Elizabeth’s eyes must have convinced her. “The only visitors are supposed to be family, but if you promise to be quiet ….”
Wendy left the room and Elizabeth approached the bed. She took William’s hand and gazed down at him, comforted by the regular rise and fall of his chest. She had occasionally caught glimpses of something vulnerable inside him, something that made her long to hold him in her arms and protect him from the world, but never had that impulse been stronger than now.
How could she have been so hateful, saying cruel things and twisting every word that came out of his mouth? He had begged her to listen, to believe his declaration of love. Instead, she had insulted him and ejected him from her home and her life. And now he was in an intensive care unit for people with heart problems.
She brushed away her tears. She was being ridiculous, thinking she had caused this. Hearts didn’t literally break. Besides, what happened between them couldn’t have devastated him that badly, not when they barely knew each other. He was a grown man with money and connections and a place in the world, not a sad little boy who needed her comfort and protection.
Elizabeth’s fingers skimmed his cheek; it felt cool to the touch. She stroked his hair, smoothing it off his forehead. He made a soft noise, almost a groan, and stirred slightly, but his eyes remained closed.
Wendy returned to the room carrying a bag of saline solution and went to work preparing it. Elizabeth checked the clock on the wall and found that she had to leave for the airport very soon or risk missing her flight. She released his hand slowly and stepped away from the bed with a sigh. Again he seemed to respond, but, as before, his eyes remained closed.
“For a minute, I thought he was going to wake up,” she said quietly.
Wendy looked up from her work with the IV bag. “Maybe he felt you holding his hand, and he didn’t want you to let go. How long have you two been dating?”
Elizabeth smiled, a bit embarrassed. “How could you tell?”
“It’s pretty obvious from the way you look at him, and the way you touched his hand just then.”
“I only met him a little over a month ago.”
“Well, if you want my advice, don’t let him get away. You can tell a lot about people from the way they behave when they’re sick.”
Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to say in response. She exited his room and approached the nurse’s station, studying the orchid. She asked a nurse for a sheet of paper. Then, leaning against the counter, she wrote:
I’m sorry I couldn’t stay till you woke up, but unfortunately I have to leave for the airport. Please, as soon as you’re feeling well enough, call me in San Francisco. The nurse says you’ll be fine, but I’ll keep worrying until I hear your voice telling me it’s true.
As I said in my phone messages, I'd like to talk about what happened the other night. I have some things I need to ask you, and some things I need to tell you. But most of all I owe you an apology for my terrible behavior. I hope you can forgive me and that we can move past what happened.
I’m leaving the orchid with you, to watch over you while you sleep since I can’t do it myself.
She stared at the paper, wondering how to close the letter. Sincerely? Fondly? Nothing seemed right. Finally, she scribbled her name, followed by Jane’s phone number. Then she folded the note, wrote William’s name on it, and set it alongside the orchid.
When Elizabeth returned to William’s room, Wendy was adjusting the IV flow. “Okay, I’ll get out of your way now,” Wendy said.
“Unfortunately, I have to leave for the airport now. But I was wondering, is there any chance you could keep the orchid for him until he moves to a regular room?”
Wendy hesitated. “Okay, I suppose we could do that.”
“Thank you so much. I really want him to have it, especially since he didn’t wake up and see me. I’m leaving for California in a couple of hours.” She felt tears welling up again.
“Don’t worry,” Wendy said, patting her arm. “We’ll take good care of him. And I’ll tell him you were here.”
Elizabeth leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Get well soon,” she whispered. “And call me.” She turned to go, stopping at the door to look back at him one last time.
Caroline smiled to herself when she saw Elizabeth walking away, brushing tears out of her eyes. She peeked into William’s room and saw that he was sleeping, so Elizabeth must not have spoken to him. Aww, how sad.
Elizabeth had written a note at the desk and left it with that purple orchid she’d been carrying. Caroline strolled over to the nurse’s station, checked to be sure nobody was watching, and casually unfolded the note to read it. Ah, so there’s trouble in paradise. What a shame. She crumpled the sheet of paper and shoved it into her purse. Now, what to do about the orchid? A perfect solution presented itself. For now, she left the orchid where it was and strutted into the hall toward the elevators. It was time for some celebratory shoe shopping.
William had been struggling toward consciousness for a while, but at last he was winning the battle. His head seemed to be filled with cotton, his leg ached, and his eyelids felt as though someone had sewn them shut while he slept. He forced them partway open, grabbing the bed rails on either side of him when the room began to spin. He closed his eyes and lay quietly, waiting for his head to clear. This time when he opened his eyes, the world remained stationary. He blinked, trying to clear his vision.
The last thing he remembered was being taken to the catheterization lab. They had told him he would be sedated only enough to keep him comfortable, but he had apparently been asleep ever since. He recalled a dream, an incredibly vivid one in which Elizabeth had stood beside his bed. He could still feel her hand holding his, the sensation so real that he had expected to find her there when he awoke.
But she was gone, on her way to California and her new life, and if she was thinking of him at all, it was probably with disgust.
He tried to shift his position, grimacing at the twinge of pain coming from his leg. He reached down, exploring, and found a weighted covering of some sort over his lower torso. He felt beneath it and discovered a bandage covering his groin and upper thigh. They had told him about this in advance; they were protecting the puncture wound made by the catheter.
He swallowed and grimaced at the scratchy sensation in his throat. It took some fumbling, but finally he found his call button. A nurse he remembered from the previous day arrived quickly.
“Mr. Darcy, you’re awake! What can I do for you?”
“Could I get some water, please?” He scarcely recognized the rasping voice as his own.
“I’ll get you some right away. Please lie still for now; we need to make sure you don’t start to bleed at the puncture site.”
She returned soon with a large Styrofoam cup with a straw protruding from its plastic lid. “I know you’re thirsty, but take little sips at first.”
He reached for it, and although his arms felt heavy and weak, he managed to grasp it, sipping the deliciously cold water through the straw. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, do you feel up to some visitors?” she asked. “I told your family I’d let them know when you woke up; they’re down in the waiting room.”
William nodded, continuing to drink the water.
“You had another visitor too; your girlfriend was here. It was against the rules, strictly speaking, but I let her sit with you for a few minutes. She couldn't stay, but she left you something; I’ll go get it. You’re not allowed flowers in this unit but we’re keeping it at the desk for now.”
When the nurse returned to his room, William inhaled a sharp breath, almost choking on his water. Was that Lizzy’s orchid in her hands? Maybe she had been there after all, and it wasn’t a dream. But the thrill in his heart died when he looked again. It was the same type of orchid, but it was much smaller and in a decorative pot, not the plain one her orchid had occupied. Besides, even if she had found out where he was and had visited, she would never have described herself as his girlfriend.
“I’ll be right back with your family,” the nurse said.
But if it wasn’t Elizabeth, who would have visited, claiming to be his girlfriend? His question was answered when a grating voice trilled a most unwelcome greeting.
“Darling, you’re awake! What a wonderful surprise!”
“Hello, Caroline.” He closed his eyes, wishing with all his heart that the sedatives hadn’t worn off.
“Please let me apologize again on Allen’s behalf,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “He feels terrible. When that horrid woman came to the house and mentioned Charles Bingley, Allen assumed she’d be welcome at the hospital. I can’t believe we never told him about her, but he doesn’t usually answer the door or the phone, so I guess it’s possible.”
“It’s fine,” William said. This ground had been covered earlier and he had assured Allen that he wasn’t to blame, but the Reynoldses were still mortified. “I’m sure Caroline did everything in her power to mislead him.”
Mrs. Reynolds had shooed Caroline away quickly, but not before she had explained that the orchid was a gift from her. It was a surprisingly thoughtful choice. She must have consulted Charles, who was familiar with the rooftop greenhouse. But how she had managed to select the same type of orchid he had given to Elizabeth was a mystery William would probably never solve. It amused him to imagine how angry Caroline would be if she knew that her gift would serve primarily as a memento of a perfect evening with Elizabeth.
Caroline had said she would visit him again tomorrow, but he was feeling stronger now and would be better able to cope with her. If he was lucky, perhaps he would even be discharged before she returned.
At least he would rest better tonight than last night—and if not, it wouldn’t be Mrs. Reynolds’s fault. Besides the comfort of his luxury accommodations, he was wearing a pair of pajamas she had sent Allen to buy, and his favorite robe was draped at the foot of the bed, resting on top of a soft, warm blanket from one of the guest rooms. Half a dozen books sat on a night table beside the bed, next to a small stereo system and a pile of his favorite CDs. In addition, she had offered to bring a home-cooked dinner, but after speaking to the McKeen Pavilion’s chef and perusing the dinner menu, she had decided William would be sufficiently well fed without her involvement.
But there was one thing missing. “Where’s my cell phone?” he asked.
“Sonya put it in here,” Mrs. Reynolds said. She opened a drawer and handed it to him.
“I don’t understand,” Georgiana said. “When did you start loving your cell phone so much?”
“Maybe he’s seeing things through new eyes,” Sonya remarked from the doorway. “A health crisis can do that to a person.” She wasn’t allowed in the room; Mrs. Reynolds and Gran were still enforcing the two-visitor rule despite the size of the space, complete with comfortable sofas and a dining table.
He turned a quizzical stare on Sonya—she had just passed up a perfect opportunity to tease him about his ineptitude with technology—but he couldn’t read her expression. He turned his attention back to Georgiana, who kissed his cheek and then departed with Mrs. Reynolds. Sonya stayed in the doorway as they walked away, and then slipped into his room.
“Do you know your voicemail password?” she asked quietly.
“Yes, thanks.” William congratulated himself on his foresight in writing it on a Post-It attached to the phone.
“Tell her I said hello when you talk to her. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
William shook his head with a reluctant half-smile as Sonya disappeared down the hall. Her mind-reading talents were frightening sometimes. But in this case she was off target, unless Elizabeth had called and left him her San Francisco phone number.
He powered up the phone, his heart beating faster. But his excitement faded when he saw that the display didn’t indicate any waiting messages. Just in case, he connected to the voicemail system.
“No messages,” the system told him. Somehow, hearing the words made it even worse.
William shut off his phone and dropped it on the bed table. He hadn’t really expected her to call, but until now there had been at least a shred of hope. There was no longer any question in his mind. Elizabeth Bennet wanted him out of her life, and he would have to find a way to forget her.