William and Elizabeth made their way slowly up the hill to the house, hand in hand. He had retrieved his jacket and placed it back around her shoulders, pronouncing it unharmed by its fall to the ground. He chuckled, wondering if she understood how significant it was that he had disregarded the welfare of his wardrobe, even momentarily.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Nothing. You make me happy.”
“I’m glad,” she answered, squeezing his hand.
William surveyed the shadowy lawn, looking for a secluded spot to which they could detour. Returning to the party was low on his list of priorities. He wished that instead they could spend the rest of the evening exploring the grounds together, stopping occasionally so that he could gather her into his arms.
He noted a path that led into a grove of trees and tried to guide her in that direction. She looked at him, one eyebrow raised in an unspoken question.
“I’m not ready to go back to the house,” he explained. “Let’s stay out here a while longer.”
“You know we can’t do that. Catherine isn’t going to like having her guest of honor vanish. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s organized a search party by now.”
As if on cue, a tuxedo-clad figure rushed toward them. “Mr. Darcy? Mr. Darcy? Is that you?”
Elizabeth withdrew her hand from William’s grasp and took a step away from him. He rolled his eyes as Bill Collins, red-faced and puffing, bore down on them.
“Thank heaven I’ve found you, Mr. Darcy! Dr. de Bourgh is beside herself! She’s had me looking everywhere for you! You must return to the house at once!” Bill gesticulated wildly in the direction of the mansion, nearly jumping up and down in his agitation.
William stood his ground. “Elizabeth and I are getting a bit of fresh air. Why don’t you go back inside and tell Catherine I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Bill, we didn’t mean to upset Dr. de Bourgh,” Elizabeth said. “And I didn’t mean to monopolize William. It was so stuffy in the house that I was feeling a bit light-headed, and he offered to walk with me.”
“I would have been happy to take you for a walk so that Mr. Darcy could have seen to his duties as guest of honor,” Bill said. William’s jaw clenched, both at Bill’s insolent words and at the warm look in his eyes as they rested on Elizabeth.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” she replied quickly, before William could construct a suitably haughty retort. “Let’s all go back to the house so Dr. de Bourgh can stop worrying.”
William knew she was right, but he didn’t have to like it. He and Elizabeth trailed behind Bill, who continually exhorted them to hurry. Elizabeth slipped the tuxedo jacket off her shoulders and handed it to William, taking the opportunity to brush his arm gently, her warm smile indicating that the contact was no accident.
“It must be getting late,” she said. “I should probably find Jane and see if she’s ready to go home.”
“Don’t leave the party yet,” he replied, as Bill trotted well ahead of them along the path. “Stay, and let me drive you home.”
“But Jane and I drove here together.”
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
They passed through the door from the terrace into the ballroom, accompanied by a preening Bill Collins. “Dr. de Bourgh?” he called out in triumph, “I found him!”
William noted the scowl on Catherine’s face. The rest of the evening would be excruciating, but he didn’t care. Elizabeth was back in his life. That was worth far greater sacrifices than suffering the wrath of Catherine de Bourgh.
An hour later, he decided that he had done enough penance for his disappearance. He had stood by Catherine’s side since his return to the house, occasionally adding a remark while she pontificated nonstop to a variety of guests. He had earned the right to spend the rest of the evening with Elizabeth. Better yet, the crowd was thinning; soon it would be possible to depart.
Elizabeth had left the ballroom almost immediately after their return to the house and he hadn’t seen her since. He noted with satisfaction that Bill Collins had spent his time in the ballroom, circling Anne and Catherine like an anxious puppy, and thus was not with Elizabeth.
The celebrated conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was embarking on what promised to be a lengthy story about a concert tour of Asia. William quickly excused himself from the group, ignoring Catherine’s sharp stare. He exited the ballroom, searching the main hall for Elizabeth, but instead he noticed Charles standing in a corner.
Charles’s eyes lit up when he saw William. “All alone?” William asked.
“Caroline and Elena went to the ladies’ room. I’m enjoying a quiet moment.”
“Too much chatter this evening?”
Charles snorted. “Elena hasn’t said much, but Caroline has been talking nonstop. About you, mostly. From what she’s been telling Elena, she has big plans for you now that you’re in San Francisco.”
“She can make all the plans she wants,” William said, shrugging. “It has nothing to do with me.”
“Caroline thinks you’ve got a thing for Elizabeth Bennet.”
William stuck his hands in his pockets and willed his voice to sound calm. “We’re … friends.” He wasn’t prepared to discuss Elizabeth with anyone. A flush crept up his neck as he noted Charles’s curious expression. He was saved, ironically, by Caroline’s return from the ladies’ room.
“William! Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She swiveled over to him, thrust out her newly prominent chest, and entwined her arm with his.
He extracted his arm from her grasp and stepped away, his lips pressed tightly together. He glanced at Charles and intercepted his friend’s apologetic look.
“So, ladies,” Charles said in a tone of forced jocularity, “what do you say? Is it time for us to head back to the city?”
Elena nodded. “It’s late, and I have a headache.”
“No, no, it’s much too early,” Caroline said. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to leave poor William here all alone.”
“But you rode over with us,” Charles said, “and we’re leaving.”
“I’m sure I can find someone to take me home.” She looked up at William through her eyelashes, her bright red lips curved in a seductive smile.
William ignored her overt hint and addressed Charles and Elena. “Will you be in town the rest of the weekend?”
“I’m staying,” Charles said, “but Elena has to fly home early tomorrow. Want to get together tomorrow afternoon and road test your Ferrari? I can’t wait to see it.”
“A Ferrari?” Caroline sighed. “Oh, my.”
William hesitated; he hoped to spend the day with Elizabeth, but he owed Charles a debt of gratitude for his visit to New York in July. “I need to check on something first. I’ll call you tomorrow morning.”
“Sure, no problem. It’s great to see you, Will. You’re looking a lot better than you did a month ago.”
The two men shook hands, and then Charles said, “Last chance, Caro. You coming with us?”
Caroline took a step towards William. “No, I’m not.”
“Suit yourself.” Charles looked at Elena and said, “Let’s go.”
Caroline wasted no time once they were gone. “Alone at last,” she sighed. “William, darling, it’s going to be so wonderful to have you here in San Francisco with me.”
“I am not here with you, Caroline,” William replied coldly. It occurred to him that this was one consequence of living in San Francisco that he hadn’t considered. “We are temporarily living in the same city, that’s all. And I asked you not to call me ‘darling.’”
“Oh, all right,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “Lucky for you, you’re sexy when you’re grumpy. Now, let’s talk about how we’re going to spend the rest of the weekend.”
“I don’t know how you’re spending the weekend, Caroline. I have plans.”
She paused for a moment and he saw her eyes narrow. But then, like skies suddenly clearing, she flashed a bright smile. “Well, that’s a shame, but I forgive you, because we’ll have lots of chances to see each other this fall. And you can drive me home tonight, can’t you? I’m stranded here without a ride now that Charles is gone, and besides, I’d just love to see your Ferrari. Italian cars are so sexy.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s impossible,” he answered, barely restraining an eye-roll. “The car only seats two, and I’m already giving someone else a ride. But I’m sure you can find another way back to the city. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
He turned and stalked away, shaking his head. He expected her to try to follow him. Indeed, she called his name, and he heard her heels clicking on the polished wood floor. When he reached the drawing room doorway, he looked back and saw with great relief that she had been stopped by another guest. This wasn’t the appropriate place to confront her about the orchid, and he had nothing else to say to her.
The drawing room was sparsely occupied; most of the remaining guests were in the ballroom. His eyes warmed when he saw Elizabeth standing in a corner, part of a group in the midst of an animated conversation. He headed in their direction, basking in the pleasure of the smile that wreathed her face when she saw him approaching.
As Elizabeth re-introduced him to several faculty members he had met in the receiving line and promptly forgotten, it occurred to him that he owed Catherine de Bourgh a huge debt for suggesting that he come to San Francisco. Some day, he would have to tell her what a great service she had done him.
“What’s taking that parking attendant so long?” William grumbled. “I hope they haven’t been out joyriding in my car.”
“Why would they do that?” Elizabeth asked. “Is it another fire-engine red Z3, like you had at the wedding?”
He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
She returned the smile, amused by his mischievous air, and stepped closer. Their arms brushed against each other, and he captured her hand in his.
Once Jane had heard Elizabeth’s brief explanation of the conversation by the pool, she had been happy to drive home alone. She had left just a few minutes before, and soon Elizabeth would be alone with William. The family of butterflies residing in her stomach took wing at this thought. There were still issues to be resolved: some things she needed to tell him, and some things she didn’t understand. She didn’t want to get into all of that tonight, but it might be necessary.
Elizabeth gasped. “This is yours?”
“You like it?” William asked, with a smirk that almost made her laugh.
“I never thought I’d get to ride in a Ferrari!”
“You’ll be riding in this car a lot if I have anything to say about it,” he said, leading her to the passenger’s side and opening the door with a flourish.
“William! William!” It was Caroline, her voice high-pitched and grating, doing her best to sprint in his direction but hampered by her stilettos.
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice harsh.
“You simply must give me a ride home.”
“I told you earlier that you’d have to make other arrangements. I’m taking Elizabeth home.”
Caroline turned and stared at Elizabeth. Her expression might have been described as a smile by a charitable observer, but in truth it was closer to a sneer. “You wouldn’t mind getting a ride with someone else, would you? You seemed quite cozy with that man who wears his hair in a ponytail. He was one of the waiters, wasn’t he?”
“That’s Bill Collins, associate dean of the conservatory,” Elizabeth answered in a cool tone. “You might remember him from Jane and Charles’s rehearsal dinner.”
“Oh, that’s right! Now that you mention it, you and he spent quite a bit of time together that evening too. As I recall, he accompanied you on that delightful solo you sang.”
“Caroline—” William began, but Elizabeth interrupted, touching his hand softly.
“You’re right, Caroline. I did spend a fair amount of time with Bill that night. I sat beside him at dinner, in the seat that was supposed to have been yours. It’s almost as if someone switched our place cards.”
“You might be right,” Caroline replied in a silky tone. “Perhaps he did it so that you and he wouldn’t be separated at dinner. How lucky you are to have such an … interesting … boyfriend.”
Caroline’s smugness was apparently puncture-proof, but Elizabeth wasn’t ready to give up. “Bill and I are friends, but that’s all. Since you find him so intriguing, why don’t I introduce you? I’m sure he’d be thrilled to give you a ride.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” William said. “But perhaps someone else could make the introductions. We’re leaving.”
“Oh, how sweet,” Caroline gushed, giving Elizabeth a patronizing smile. “I suppose this will be your first ride in a Ferrari? It’s so generous of William to take the time to broaden your horizons.”
“Yes, isn’t it,” Elizabeth answered in a sarcastic tone, wishing she had a gigantic fly swatter handy, or, better yet, a huge can of Raid. “He’s generous with the less fortunate.” She flicked an amused glance in William’s direction, but saw from his tightly compressed lips and the dark expression in his eyes that he saw no humor in the situation.
“But, as you’ll learn, a car like that has disadvantages—for you, I mean,” Caroline said.
“Such as?” Elizabeth immediately realized her tactical error in rising to Caroline’s bait, but it was too late.
“It doesn’t have a back seat.” The remark was ambiguous enough on the surface, but Caroline’s insolent expression and her supercilious tone made her implication clear.
Elizabeth felt rage welling up inside her. Her eyes shot a flurry of invisible poisoned darts at Caroline. It took her a moment to compose a reply, but before she succeeded, William drew himself up to his full height and turned on Caroline. “I have had enough of this,” he said through gritted teeth, his eyes intense with fury. “You will not speak to Elizabeth that way.”
Elizabeth saw a flash of anger on Caroline’s face, but it disappeared as quickly as it had materialized. “William, dear, I don’t know what you’re so upset about. I’m sorry if my little joke offended anyone; of course I was just teasing. Now, let’s all kiss and make up and be friends again.”
He heaved a loud sigh. “Caroline, we are not friends. You are manipulative and dishonest, and I want nothing to do with you.”
“Well, I admit, I can be a bit focused on what I want at times, but manipulative? Dishonest? Those are such harsh words.”
“Harsh, perhaps, but deserved,” William shot back. “We know what you did in New York.”
Caroline raised her perfectly manicured eyebrows. “I’ve done many things in New York. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Elizabeth brought an orchid to the hospital while I was asleep, and you lied and said it was from you.”
“I never said that. You must have heard me wrong. After all, you were taking lots of medication; you were barely conscious.”
“I remember perfectly well what you told me. It’s too late to rewrite history.”
“And you took the note I left next to the orchid,” Elizabeth added.
Caroline bristled. “I did no such thing. I never saw any note. How dare you fling accusations at me, you little—”
“Stop it!” William snapped. “For once in your life, just tell the truth.”
A look of hauteur spread across Caroline’s face. “I have no plans to stand here and be your verbal punching bag, William Darcy,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “Once you’ve calmed down, we’ll have a nice talk without so many people around. Good night.” She strode away with regal carriage, her head held high.
William crossed to the driver’s side of the car and seated himself. “I’m sorry, Lizzy,” he said, touching her arm gently.
The concern in his eyes helped to calm her churning stomach. “It’s not your fault.”
“I’ve met plenty of aggressive women, but never one as hard to discourage as Caroline.”
“So I should expect to spend a lot of time standing around watching women try to fling themselves into your arms?”
William smiled ruefully. “It’s not that bad.”
Elizabeth pursed her lips, trying not to smile at the hint of smugness in his air. She would have to remember not to feed the ego; it was very well fed on its own. But it was a small price to pay for having him back in her life.