On Monday afternoon, Elizabeth sat in her office fidgeting. She checked her watch again: 3:10. William had called her that morning on the way to his doctor’s appointment to confirm that he’d see her at school around lunchtime. But it was long past lunchtime and he hadn’t appeared, nor had he called. What if the doctor had found something terribly wrong, and he was in the hospital? She couldn’t sit and wait any longer.
She called his cell phone for the third time in the past hour, and for the third time it rolled to voicemail. He might have left the phone in his car, or silenced it and forgotten he’d done so. But on the other hand, if he were in the hospital, he might be unable to answer.
Also for the third time, she dialed the number for William’s studio. For the first time, she heard a busy signal. So he hadn’t come to see her first as they had arranged, instead going straight to his studio and leaving her waiting and worrying. She checked her watch; she had some free time before her next voice lesson. She grabbed her keys and stalked into the hall, slamming her office door.
The door to the studio was open, and as she approached she could hear William’s voice. Her indignation ratcheted up another level. She was about to enter the room when he spoke again.
“What was the point in my providing a detailed list of my requirements, if you were going to disregard it?” His voice wasn’t loud, but his precise diction revealed his annoyance.
“Truly, Mr. Darcy, I didn’t disregard your requests.” It was Bill Collins’s voice. “It’s just that I was told you weren’t coming in until tomorrow.”
“You should have asked me my plans, instead of accepting the word of others.”
“You’re right, of course, and I do apologize. But, you see, we simply didn’t have enough time to make these arrangements.”
“Then why wasn’t I informed in advance of the delays, so I could plan accordingly?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. ”Why wasn’t I informed?” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
“We were trying to expedite the setup, and we thought we had succeeded. The audio equipment you requested should have been delivered this morning, but it was shipped to the wrong address. I spoke to the vendor a few minutes ago, and they’ve promised it will be here tomorrow. If you can just give us one more day, everything should be here.”
“And the piano? I was promised that it would be here by noon, and that I would be meeting with a piano technician at three o’clock. Not only is the technician not here, but this is not the instrument I selected.”
“Again, I’m so very sorry, sir. This piano is just for your temporary use. We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, you might say … or perhaps robbing Yamaha to pay Steinway?” Bill giggled weakly at his own joke, and Elizabeth had to suppress a little snicker of her own, but the quip was met with silence from William.
“You see,” Bill continued, speaking rapidly, “we’re giving you the Steinway from our recital hall. It’s a marvelous instrument and I know you’ll be pleased with it. But we need to shift some other pianos around to replace it—between classrooms and practice rooms and performing venues, we have a lot of pianos, and it’s all very complicated—and we couldn’t move the piano you requested in here quite yet because—”
“I don’t need to know the details, Collins.” William said in a dismissive tone. “Just fix it.”
“I will; you have my word.”
“Good, because otherwise I might be forced to discuss these issues with Catherine de Bourgh.”
“Oh, no, there’s no need to involve Dr. de Bourgh. I assure you, I will personally make certain that everything is resolved to your satisfaction.” Bill’s voice took on a note of near panic.
Elizabeth had heard enough.She stepped into the room. “Hi, guys,” she said in a tone of forced cheer.
Both men stared at her. The shuttered expression in William’s eyes softened slightly as his gaze rested on her. She was surprised that his usual upright posture was absent; he was resting one hand on the Yamaha baby grand piano beside him, and he seemed to be leaning in that direction.
“Elizabeth,” Bill said with an attempt at a smile, “it’s good to see you again so soon.” Since William hadn’t appeared, Elizabeth had accepted Bill’s invitation for a late lunch in the cafeteria.
She smiled at Bill and then turned to William. “I just dropped by to welcome you to the conservatory on your first day. But I see I’m interrupting something. Is there a problem?”
“I was just apologizing to Mr. Darcy; we’re a bit behind schedule in getting his studio set up. You may recall, at lunch today I was telling you about the situation with the pianos.” Bill fidgeted with the ring of keys in his hand. The jangling noise sounded like raw nerve endings.
“Well, I know you’ll have everything in place soon, won’t you?” she said, offering Bill an encouraging smile.
“Elizabeth, please let me handle this,” William said, frowning. He turned back to Bill. “So, just to confirm, I may expect these issues to be resolved by tomorrow?
Bill sidled toward the door. “Absolutely. Everything will be in place tomorrow. And we’ll have a piano technician—the finest in the city, I assure you—at your disposal whenever it’s convenient for you; I’ll make the arrangements. And, again, I do apologize. I assure you that I shall not rest till the matter is set right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check on our progress with the pianos.” With a little nod to Elizabeth, Bill departed. She heard the rapid squeak of his shoes as he hurried down the hall.
Elizabeth shut the studio door and studied William, whose face communicated weary disdain. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? I travel across the continent only to be faced with gross incompetence.”
At the moment, William was the last person who had any right to complain about the failures of others. “But he promised that you’d have everything by tomorrow,” she retorted. “It’s only one day.”
“And I’m supposed to simply accept the fact that nothing was as I was originally promised?”
“It’s true that Bill lacks the talent to pull a Steinway out of a hat the way Sonya did with your Ferrari. But you’re not using your studio to teach yet, and you’ve got a piano at home for practicing. What difference does it make if it’s ready tomorrow instead of today?”
He pulled himself up to his full height—though it seemed to require some effort to do it—and lifted his chin. “It might make no difference to you, but it demonstrates a complete lack of respect for a person of my stature. Also, this is a business matter; you’re unaware of the nature of my agreement with the school.”
This was the imperious William Darcy, the musical icon, speaking now. “So the Great William Darcy is telling me to butt out?”
“I—” He stopped speaking and swallowed hard.
“Because you’re just too exalted for little people like Bill Collins … and me?”
“Lizzy, that’s not fair.” He stared at her, his lips parted slightly as though he wanted to say more but couldn’t quite find the words.
Elizabeth, who was having no problem with word selection, poured out a rapid, angry torrent. “You said you’d be here around lunchtime, and you were supposed to come to my office. I’ve been waiting for you all afternoon; you didn’t even bother to call to say you weren’t coming. I thought something terrible might have happened, that maybe you were lying in a hospital bed somewhere. And instead I find you picking on Bill Collins for missing one little deadline, and then you tell me to mind my own business. So, I’ll tell you what, I’ll start minding my own business right now. In fact, why don’t you just forget I was ever here.” She marched to the door and yanked it open.
“Please don’t go.”
“When you’re ready to have a civilized conversation, I’ll be in my office.”
“Wait. I’m ….” He paused, took a deep breath, and continued in a quieter voice. “I’m ready now.”
She paused in the doorway and gave him a cool, appraising look.
He covered the distance between them in half a dozen long strides and drew her back into the room, shutting the door behind her. “Lizzy, what is this about my not calling? You didn’t get my message?”
“My appointment ended very late—the doctor was running behind schedule—but I called you as soon as it was over. You weren’t in your office, so I called the department secretary to see if she knew where you were.”
“I was in the cafeteria; I’d given up on you by then.”
“I know; she said she’d seen you there, and she promised to give you the message.”
“Oh. Okay. I guess she forgot.” He still had to answer for his superior attitude, but she allowed him to lead her to a comfortable sofa in one corner. “You know,” she remarked with pointed sarcasm, “you have no idea how good you have it here, even if they haven’t handed over the school’s best piano quite yet. My office is too small for an armchair, much less a nice couch. I guess that’s what being a ‘person of stature’ buys you.”
“I’m sorry if I sounded ….”
He sighed, his eyes on the ceiling. “All right, yes. I’m sure I sounded … like those things. But I ….” His voice trailed off and he closed his eyes.
He shook his head slightly, his eyes still closed. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
She was about to challenge him, to force him to say more, but at that moment he opened his eyes, and she was shocked into silence by the dark misery they held.
“I’m sorry, Lizzy,” he mumbled. He leaned forward, burying his head in his hands and massaging his forehead.
“William, what’s wrong?”
After a long pause, he spoke in a halting voice. “I’ve had a bad headache since before noon, and ….” He closed his eyes.
In a flash of insight, the pieces fell into place. “And you got bad news from the doctor.”
He rubbed his temples. “The headache is one of the worst ones I’ve ever had, so bad that I felt sick to my stomach, so I went straight home from the doctor’s office. It’s not that much better now, but I had agreed to meet with the piano technician, so I came over at the appointed time … and you know the rest.”
She massaged his neck gently. “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa and rest?”
“But I’d rather sit next to you, and I’d take up the whole sofa by myself.”
“I have a solution.” She nudged his head off her shoulder and scooted down to the far end of the sofa, setting a loose pillow on her lap. “Will this work?”
The lines of tension around his eyes softened. He kicked off his shoes and stretched out on his back, his head sinking into the pillow on her lap. It struck her as comical that his feet stuck out over the sofa arm at the other end.
His eyes drifted shut. “I feel better already,” he murmured.
“Close your eyes,” she whispered. She massaged his forehead softly.
For several minutes, neither spoke. Elizabeth continued her gentle ministrations to his forehead, her other hand resting lightly on his chest, feeling the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. From his relaxed breathing, she thought he had fallen asleep. But when she looked down at him, envying his dark eyelashes, his eyes fluttered open, his gaze full of warmth.
He reached up, toying with a lock of her hair. “I wish all medical treatments were this pleasant.”
“Speaking of medicine, tell me about your visit to the doctor.”
“That won’t help me to relax.”
“Please? I think you got some bad news. Tell me what the doctor said.”
He closed his eyes, and at first it seemed that he wasn’t going to answer, but then he began to speak. “Dr. Salinger wasn’t as optimistic as Dr. Rosemont, my cardiologist in New York. He thinks my recovery is going to be much slower than we were expecting. He doesn’t think I can resume my touring schedule until at least early next year. And there are … things Dr. Rosemont told me I was healthy enough to do, but Dr. Salinger disagrees.”
“Like what?” she asked, caressing his cheek.
He hesitated. “What worries me is, what if this is the best I’m ever going to be? What if I can’t ever tour again, or go running, or … or do other things that normal men can do?”
A single tear slid out of his eye and down the side of his face toward the pillow on her lap. She dabbed the tear away. “Did he say that you weren’t going to get better?”
“No. But he said it’s going to take a long time, based on the limited progress I’ve made so far. He wasn’t even willing to give me a time frame for resuming touring.”
“You know how doctors are. They don’t like to be pinned down. And Dr. Rosemont did tell you that it might take six months or more. You’re the one who decided six months was too long.”
“But what if I’m not making progress because I’m going to be this way for the rest of my life? Useless, and no more than half a man?”
Elizabeth was torn between wanting to comfort him and wanting to reason with him. She opted for a compromise, running one hand slowly down his arm and capturing his hand while saying, “You could never be useless, and as for being half a man, nothing could be further from the truth. But can you honestly tell me that you’ve been taking care of yourself? Maybe that’s why your progress is slow. Maybe you need to do a lot less running around town and a lot more resting.”
“I can’t sit in a chair all day long and do nothing. Besides, I need some exercise to keep my circulatory system from getting even weaker.”
“Okay. But exercising doesn’t mean climbing Telegraph Hill. And you can’t be staying up till three in the morning and then getting up at eight.”
“I want my life back. I want to give concerts, and go running, and ….” He sighed and closed his eyes.
She caressed his hair and spoke in a gentle but firm voice. “It must be painful to have these things taken away from you, even temporarily. But the sooner you accept that you can’t just order your body to obey you, the sooner you’ll start doing the things you need to do in order to get better.”
“You sound like Sonya.”
“That’s because we’re two brilliant, sensible women.”
“Indeed you are,” he replied, a tiny smile flitting across his face.
“And I think you should make this Dr. Salinger choke on his pessimistic predictions. Start doing everything the doctors have told you to do, and I bet before long you’ll make some serious progress. And I’m going to help you any way I can.”
He sat up, his eyes full of an emotion she couldn’t quite identify. “You are an amazing woman,” he whispered, and then his mouth was on hers. She sighed, a soft, throaty sound born of the sweet intimacy of the moment, and her arms went around his neck.
When their lips finally parted, they stayed close together, foreheads touching. He kissed the tip of her nose and murmured her name in a deep, caressing tone that sent a shiver through her.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, shivering again as his lips rambled along her jaw.
“Much, much better,” he answered, his lips approaching hers.
The sound of footsteps in the hall made her vividly aware of their surroundings. “William, the door isn’t locked, and if someone came in ….”
“You’re right. This isn’t exactly discreet.” He sat up, a rueful smile on his face.
“I was thinking, maybe it would be better if you just went home and got some sleep tonight. We can have dinner on Tuesday instead.”
“No. I’m starting to feel better. Besides, Mrs. Reynolds would murder me in my sleep if I canceled. She’s gone all out on the menu for tonight.”
In truth, Elizabeth didn’t want to cancel. She hoped to have a chance to get a more candid assessment of William’s health from Mrs. Reynolds than he had provided himself. “All right, then, dinner is still on. But I have some conditions.”
“Let’s hear them.”
“First, I want you to go home right now and get some rest.”
“Okay,” he said, as they stood up. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into coming with me? I rather liked the pillow I had just now.”
She handed him the sofa pillow. “Here you go.”
“But you want me to get more rest, and that would help.” He spoke in a wheedling tone, but he was grinning.
“Wow, that was some shameless manipulation! The rest of your pillow has to go to Jane’s reception. Come on, let me walk you to your car.”
“So you can make sure I keep my promise and leave campus?”
As they followed the hallway toward the doors to the parking lot, he said, “You said ‘conditions.’ What else?”
“We’ll make it an early evening.”
“As long as it’s not too early.”
They passed through the doors together into the parking lot. “You don’t need to walk me the rest of the way,” he said. “I’m going home, I promise. Enjoy the reception.”
“Thanks, I’m sure I will. Get some rest, and I’ll see you later.”
She stood in the parking lot and watched until he drove away. Then she returned to her office to await her last voice lesson of the day, smiling to herself as she thought about the evening ahead—Jane’s reception and dinner at the penthouse.