Elizabeth and William followed the long hallway from her apartment to the elevator lobby, hands clasped. Elizabeth began to fidget, feeling guilty for deserting the party—and Jane, given Charles’s presence—for so long.
“This elevator is taking forever,” she grumbled. “And I want to be there when they bring out the cake. I hope I didn’t miss it.”
He drew in a sharp breath. “The cake. I’d forgotten about it.”
“There you go again. What is so wrong with the cake?” The elevator doors opened at last, and they stepped aboard.
“Didn’t I deserve some warning about what I was getting myself into?”
“Warning?” She wrinkled her nose. “About what? I mean, granted, the bakery wasn’t on Snob Hill, but it’s not like I sent you to the Tenderloin.”1
He let go of her hand. “Didn’t you stop to think that it would put me in an awkward position, given the chance that I might be recognized—which I was, incidentally. The clerk invited me to his favorite gay bar.”
She stared at him, astonished and clearly amused. “The clerk at the bakery propositioned you?”
The elevator doors opened and they stepped out into the hall. “No, but he jumped to some conclusions about me. And who can blame him, considering the cake?”
She stopped walking and faced him. “What are you talking about? He jumped to the conclusion that you were an art lover with a weird sense of humor? Oh, the degradation! The humiliation!” She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead in a melodramatic gesture.
He squared his shoulders, pursing his lips. “I’m delighted to be providing you so much amusement. But if that’s what passes for art in San Francisco—”
“I think it passes for art pretty much everywhere. In fact, didn’t you say at the rehearsal dinner that this was a particular interest of your grandmother’s? I mean the original, obviously, not the edible version.”
His eyes flared. “I beg your pardon.”
She had once heard those words spoken in similar accents in a movie depicting 18th-century cavaliers, followed immediately by the flinging of a gauntlet. Something was wrong. “William, what did the cake look like?”
A pained look came across his face. “It’s … quite large, and mostly frosted in a sort of light shade of chocolate. With, you know, details filled in, and some white frosting at the … well, at the tip.”
“How on earth did they do the portrait in chocolate? And the tip of what? Her nose? I don’t understand.”
He looked equally bewildered. “What portrait? The cake is in the shape of a rather large … appendage. A … um, male appendage.”
She stared at him in growing alarm. “You mean a—?” Her eyes flicked involuntarily to William’s crotch, which only magnified her distress.
He nodded. “With, you know ….” He extended his hands just below waist height, his palms turned up and cupped.
“But I ordered a sheet cake with a copy of a 17th-century Dutch painting, not—”
The familiar strains of “Happy Birthday to You” echoed from down the hall. For a moment Elizabeth gaped at William in horror, and then she broke into a run. She burst into the party room just in time to hear raucous laughter. Charlotte’s voice rose above the rest. “So, is the guy who posed for this going to show up soon?”
Jane, her face scarlet, hurried over and asked Elizabeth in urgent tones, “Did you know about this?”
“I never had a chance to look inside the box. William tried to ask me about it when he got here, but I thought he was just being stuffy and pretentious, so I ignored him.”
“Why, thank you,” William muttered.
Elizabeth flashed him an apologetic glance, but she didn’t have time to soothe his ego. “Jane, why didn’t you just leave it in the kitchen?”
“Kitty and Lydia volunteered to take care of it, and since I never looked in the box either, I had no idea …. Lizzy, you wouldn’t believe where they put the candles.”
Elizabeth groaned. Across the room, the guests applauded; evidently Charlotte had successfully extinguished the candles. She heard Lydia cry, “I know which piece I want!”
“No way,” Charlotte retorted. “It’s my cake, and I get first choice. But there are other interesting options available for some lucky girl.”
“Elizabeth, there you are.” It was Bill Collins. “I’ve been looking for you for some time.”
“I’m sorry. I had something I needed to take care of.” She was careful not to look in William’s direction.
Bill’s lip was curled in an expression of distaste. “I hesitate to say this, because of course I have nothing but the highest regard for your judgment, but I’m a bit surprised at your choice for the birthday cake. Forgive me for being so blunt, but I can’t help but think that it seems rather … what is the word?”
“Tasteless? Pornographic?” William suggested, his amusement poorly concealed.
“The bakery made a mistake,” Elizabeth said, shooting a warning glare at William.
Relief flooded Bill’s face. “Oh, thank heaven. I knew there had to be some mistake, because of course with your taste and delicacy you would never stoop to ordering such a—”
“Liz, what a fabulous cake!” It was Charlotte, brandishing a fork. Elizabeth glanced at the contents of the plate in Charlotte’s hand and grimaced. It was worse than she had imagined.
“This isn’t the cake I ordered, Char. I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be. I think it’s a riot. I have a feeling there’s going to be some left over, though. The guys thought it was hilarious when they saw it, but they don’t seem anxious to eat any. Most of them can’t even stand to watch Kitty cutting it.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw William flinch, and she almost laughed.
“What did the one you ordered look like?” Charlotte asked, popping a forkful of cake into her mouth.
“It had Judith Leyster’s self-portrait on it in frosting … except they were going to put a mustache and beard on her.”
Charlotte chuckled. “That would have been fun, too. I wondered what happened.”
“They had a problem and had to rebake several cakes in a hurry, and I bet the orders got confused. Remember, William, I was surprised that you didn’t have to wait for the cake? Maybe ours wasn’t ready yet.”
“So perhaps it was still being worked on, and this one was for another person named Bennet,” William remarked. “He only checked the ones waiting on the shelf; he didn’t go into the back to check there.”
“Wait a minute,” Charlotte said. “You picked it up, William? And evidently you didn’t know what Lizzy had ordered.” She let out a sharp laugh. “I wish I could have seen your face.”
“I was taken aback, to say the least.”
“I wonder what kind of party this one was for,” Elizabeth said.
Charlotte snorted. “I don’t know, but I’d love to have been there when they unveiled the cake with the bearded lady on it.”
Later that night, William lounged in a comfortable armchair, his eyes scanning the few remaining party guests. The lateness of the hour and the emotional stress of the evening had left him yawning, but he was in a benevolent mood.
Since they had returned to the party, Elizabeth had kept him at her side more frequently, making introductions and effortlessly drawing him into conversations until he could almost have sworn that he was skilled at small talk. Although he would have been even happier to retreat to a quiet corner with her, it had given him pleasure to move through the crowd with her, hearing the undisguised warmth in her voice as she introduced him.
The presence of Bill Collins, always lurking nearby, demanded continued discretion. They had thus resorted to subtle contact, their arms “accidentally” brushing together, or a furtive touch of their hands accompanied by a brief but warm glance. It had turned into a secret game that William found oddly exhilarating.
At the moment Elizabeth was absent, occupied with getting Kitty and Lydia home safely. Ignoring their incoherent protests, she had confiscated Kitty’s car keys and called a taxi. He didn’t want her to find him sitting alone on her return to the party room, not with her earlier reproofs still echoing in his ears. He would have joined Charles; they hadn’t yet had an opportunity for a conversation of any substance. But Charles was in a corner with Jane, and unlikely to welcome interruptions. William next looked for Charlotte, but she was saying goodbye to her fellow doctoral students.
Lacking anything better to do, he wandered over to the food table and inspected the remains of the birthday cake, a rueful grin on his face. His embarrassment over the incident at the bakery had faded, and he could now see the humor in the encounter.
He popped a red grape into his mouth and bit into it, its sweetness cascading over his tongue and awakening his appetite. Jane and Elizabeth had assembled an extensive, if simple, selection of tidbits, but he’d had few opportunities to sample anything, too busy digesting the evening’s oversized helping of emotional upheaval. He cut a small wedge from a block of cheese, and was reviewing his cracker options when Roger Stonefield stepped alongside him and grabbed some pretzels from a nearby bowl. The jazz group’s bass player—William couldn’t remember his last name, but his first name was Jim—also sidled up to the table, clutching a bottle of beer.
The men nodded at each other, and were soon in the midst of a relaxed conversation, punctuated by breaks during which they devoured most of the remaining goodies on the table. They left the cake untouched, but William found himself sharing the tale of his trip to the bakery.
As Roger and Jim chuckled at his story, a faint whiff of jasmine tickled William’s nostrils. He felt a gentle touch on his back, and it seemed that the air around him was charged with electricity. Elizabeth stepped beside him and flashed a bright smile. “What is all the chortling about?”
“We’ve been hearing how hazardous it is to have you for a girlfriend,” Jim said, raising an eyebrow at William. “You wind up running some seriously bizarre errands.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “He’s squeezing every last drop out of that story, I see.”
William’s hand slipped behind her, caressing the small of her back. She took a tiny step toward him and peeked up through her lashes in gentle flirtation, short-circuiting his brain and causing him to miss a question from Roger. Elizabeth nudged him, and he forced himself to listen as Roger repeated his query. “There isn’t any chance that the bakery guy would ‘out’ you to a blog or a gossip column, is there?”
“No,” William answered. “I’m not tabloid fodder. The people who read that stuff don’t care about classical music.”
“It never occurred to me that you could end up in a gossip column,” Elizabeth said. Her finger traced a secret path across his palm, and a tingle shot up his arm.
Jim glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s been a great party, but I think Jan and I had better head home. Nice to see you again, Darcy.” He shook hands with William. “Have Lizzy bring you to one of our gigs soon. We’ll tell Bill to take a break, and you can sit in for a while.”
“I’d like that.” William suspected that Collins wouldn’t like it in the least, which only increased his enthusiasm for the idea.
“I should start loading the drums into my van,” Roger said. “Unless you want me to join the cleanup crew.”
“No, you go ahead,” Elizabeth said. “I was thinking of asking William to help me.”
“Watch out,” Jim said with a smirk, “or she’ll have you at the sink in a frilly apron, washing dishes.”
“Perish the thought,” Elizabeth retorted, her eyes twinkling. “I was thinking in terms of moving tables and other appropriately manly stuff.”
William shrugged. “Just as long as I don’t have to fetch any more baked goods.”
“And on that note, I’ll be going,” Roger said, laughing. He kissed Elizabeth on the cheek and shook hands with William.
The band members scattered, collecting their instruments. Charles was there as well, assisting Bill with his keyboard. William scanned the room looking for Jane, but she was absent. Perhaps she was outside saying a private goodnight to Jordan. Poor Charles.
William glanced at Elizabeth and said, “I was surprised that Jim knows we’re seeing each other.”
“Roger made a remark about us earlier tonight and Jim overheard. But we explained that he shouldn’t say anything to Bill. It’ll be fine.”
He hoped so. Keeping the news of their relationship away from the conservatory was going to be difficult, but it would be worse to be reduced to clandestine meetings in dark places. However, at the moment a dark place sounded tantalizing. He glanced around the room and formulated a plan. “Ms. Bennet, would you do me the honor of joining me in the kitchen for a moment?”
“My goodness, so formal! Does this mean you’re anxious to get started on the dishes?”
“Not exactly.” His hands on her waist, he walked behind her, guiding her firmly into the kitchen.
The room was dark except for a weak light shining above the sink. “Here, I’ll turn on some lights.” Elizabeth said, but before she had a chance, William’s arms were around her.
“That won’t be necessary,” he whispered. “I couldn’t go another second without kissing you.”
She giggled, sliding her hands up his chest. “Well, aren’t you the mad, impetuous fellow all of a sudden.”
She pressed her lips to his, kissing him with such purpose and enthusiasm that he might have laughed had desire not roared to life with alarming speed. He forced himself to end the kiss, his chin resting lightly against the top of her head. In an effort to ignore the intoxicating softness of her body as she snuggled against him, he chanted his new mantra: Patience … good things are worth waiting for. He inhaled slowly and stroked her hair in a tender caress.
A metallic crash echoed from the next room. Probably Roger had dropped some part of his drum set. Roused by the noise, Elizabeth raised her head from William’s shoulder, and even in the dim light he could see the tender concern in her eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay with the whole cake business?”
He nodded. “In retrospect, it’s a funny story. Richard and Sonya will love it.”
“But I got the feeling that something was bothering you. Are the gossip columns more of a concern than you wanted to admit?”
William was about to insist that nothing was wrong, but instead he chose the truth. “That’s not what bothers me. What if the clerk or his roommate should happen to know a classical musician, someone who plays with the San Francisco Symphony, or who sings in the opera company? The classical music world is a close-knit community and people love to gossip.”
“And if the story got out, people would think you’re gay.”
“They’re welcome to think whatever they like. My sex life is none of their business. But I hate the idea of my private life becoming grist for the classical music gossip mill, whatever the reason.”
“I hate to say it, but I’m sure that the women who play in the symphonies you visit, or who work in the front offices, already gossip about you. I bet they speculate about whether or not you have a girlfriend, whether or not you sleep around, and some other things that would make you blush.”
William, who was not infrequently the target of both subtle and blatant overtures from female musicians and symphony administrators, decided it was safest not to respond to her remark. Instead, he raised a subject he’d been thinking about for the past few days. “I know a way we could stop the gossip. Well, no, not stop it, but at least redirect it.”
“I could take my girlfriend with me on some of my trips, once I start traveling again.” He stroked her cheek with his thumb. “If she’d like to come, that is.”
Elizabeth’s eyes shone. “She’d like that very much.”
“Good.” His smoothed her hair, brushing it off her shoulders.
“Of course, it might be difficult to arrange, with my teaching schedule.”
“Let’s not worry about that right now.” He caressed her neck and shoulder. “We’ll work out the details later. I want to think about seeing you in the audience smiling at me, and then kissing you in the back seat of the limo after the performance.”
“You know, either way, you’re going to make a lot of women unhappy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your female fans. Regardless of whether they hear that you’ve started showing up with a girlfriend, or that you’re suspected of being gay, they’re going to be heartbroken.”
He chuckled. “They’ll have to learn to live with it. They’d better be careful, though. My girlfriend is the jealous sort.”
“Is that so? She’s the jealous one, not you?” She raised her eyebrows, her eyes gleaming with amusement.
He adopted a virtuous air. “Absolutely. She has quite a temper, while I’m a veritable saint.”
“Okay, Saint William,” she teased, stepping out of his embrace, “we’d better get back out there. By now we must be running low on drinks, and we’ll be needing someone to turn water into wine.”
“My work is never done,” he grumbled, but his eyes twinkled and there was a spring in his step as he followed her out of the kitchen.
It was probably inevitable that Charlotte, Jane, and Charles would be standing together near the kitchen as Elizabeth came through the door with William at her heels. She resolved not to blush, meeting their curious gazes with as much composure as she could manage.
“There you are!” Charlotte gestured toward them. “Finally! We were starting to wonder if you two were ever going to come up for air.”
Elizabeth’s resolution not to blush crumbled in the face of her friend’s knowing grin. She considered denying Charlotte’s innuendo, but she doubted she’d convince anyone. “How did you know where we were?”
“Oh, come on,” Charlotte said, smirking. “Charles and I saw William push you into the kitchen, and you obviously weren’t doing dishes in the dark.”
“But we think it’s great that you’ve worked out your differences,” Charles added hastily. “We were worried about you earlier.”
“Thank you, but there’s nothing to worry about,” William announced, astonishing Elizabeth by wrapping his arms around her waist from behind.
“That’s a relief,” Charlotte said. “The way you two looked when you stormed out of here earlier tonight, we were taking bets on how many body bags we were going to need.”
“Now, really, we knew it wasn’t that bad.” Jane smiled at Elizabeth. “Like Charles said, we were just concerned. I’m glad things are better now.”
“I need to get going.” Charles glanced self-consciously at Jane. “Caroline insisted on waiting up for me.” His expression was unreadable, as was Jane’s, but their body language spoke volumes as they darted awkward, appraising glances at each other.
William released his hold on Elizabeth and shook Charles’s hand. “Are you staying the rest of the weekend?”
Charles shook his head. “Father isn’t feeling well, and he needs me to represent him at a party on Saturday night, so I have to get home.”
“I’ll walk out with you.” He smiled at Elizabeth. “I’ll be right back.”
As they headed out the door, Elizabeth heard William say, “At least stay till the afternoon, and we can go somewhere for breakfast before you leave. Lizzy took me to a place in Haight-Ashbury ….”
Elizabeth grabbed Jane’s arm. “Well?”
“Yeah, Jane, spill the details.” Charlotte’s eyes were gleaming.
“What do you mean?”
Elizabeth exchanged frustrated glances with Charlotte. “Come on, Jane. What happened with Charles? I saw you two in the corner talking.”
“He was mostly just telling me about his life in Los Angeles. He said he almost likes his job, and his mother seems glad to have him home. Oh, and he’s doing a lot of surfing on weekends. So, all things considered, I think it’s working out well for him.”
“Nonsense.” Elizabeth was determined to force Jane to stop underestimating her importance to Charles. “You know he came up here to see you.”
“No, Lizzy. He spent most of his time with his friends.”
“Because Jordan was around you most of the time,” Charlotte retorted. “What else did he say?”
“He’s thinking about trying to come up more often when Lizzy and the guys are performing. They’ve never found a permanent replacement, and they want him to play with them on weekends sometimes.”
“A good excuse,” Elizabeth remarked to Charlotte with a sage nod.
Jane shook her head. “No, I think he just misses his music.”
“I don’t suppose he invited you to drop by to see him play?” Charlotte asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Well, yes, he did, but we shouldn’t read too much into that. He was just being polite.”
“What are we going to do with you?” Elizabeth sighed. “Yes, you should absolutely read all sorts of things into it. He’s found a way to re-establish contact with you, and I think it’s great that you’ll be seeing him regularly.”
“But he’s still down there, living the life his father dictates, and I’m still up here. Nothing has changed.”
“Maybe something will change once he comes up here more often and starts remembering what a great life he had with you,” Charlotte said.
“We’ll just have to wait and see. But enough about me.” Jane smiled at Elizabeth. “Everything’s all right between you and William?”
“Can’t you tell just by looking at her?” Charlotte snickered. “In fact, is that a hickey I see?”
Elizabeth’s hand flew to her throat in horror. Given the attention William had lavished on her neck and shoulders, it was a strong possibility.
Charlotte burst into laughter. “Kidding! But see, Jane, she wasn’t sure. So apparently there was a bit of a heat wave earlier?”
“No comment.” Elizabeth picked up a sliver of the cake, mercifully one lacking any distinguishing characteristics, and nibbled it absently.
“William is so much in love with you.” Jane’s eyes glowed with pleasure. “The way he looks at you … I don’t think I’ve ever seen eyes that intense.”
Elizabeth knew that look; it had melted her at close range on more than one occasion. “I know he cares about me, but he hasn’t said anything about love. I think he’s still making up his mind.”
“What about you?” Charlotte’s canny gaze demanded the truth. “Is your mind made up?”
The question started Elizabeth’s heart pounding. But it was too soon, much too soon; she couldn’t possibly be in love with him. She shook her head with some reluctance.
Charlotte spoke in an uncharacteristically gentle tone. “Well, whether you think so or not, Jane’s right. He adores you. So stop worrying and enjoy it, okay?”
“I’ll do my best.” Elizabeth still expected to get her heart broken in the end, but there seemed to be no avoiding it; every instinct only drew her closer to him.
Bill Collins didn’t sleep well that night. He had a secret, and he lay awake on his gently undulating waterbed far into the night, wrestling with the covers and with his conscience.
Halfway home from the party, he discovered that he had left his leather satchel in the party room. His first impulse had been to call Elizabeth and ask her to hold it for him; it would afford an excuse to drop by late Saturday morning and spirit her away to lunch at his favorite Indian restaurant. But the satchel held some sheet music he needed to lend to an early-morning piano student, so its retrieval couldn’t wait.
He retraced his path to the top of Buena Vista Avenue, finding a parking space close to the building, and made his way to the deserted party room. His satchel lay in a remote corner. Giggling to himself, he considered removing the music but leaving the satchel behind, which would still offer an excuse to drop by around lunchtime. But the satchel seemed to glower at him in mute reproach. With a silent apology, he leaned over and wrapped a comforting hand around its worn leather handles. It was his talisman, worn and battered, a gift from his long-deceased father on Bill’s graduation from Oberlin more than fifteen years earlier.
The squeaking of his shoes echoed through the dark, empty room, leading him to self-consciously quicken his pace. Soon he exited into the foggy night. As he turned toward his car, movement in the other direction caught his eye.
Two figures stood beside a sleek silver convertible bathed in a halo of light from a streetlamp. One was a tall man, the other a woman whom he immediately recognized. Elizabeth. He whispered the word aloud as the pair embraced, sharing a kiss whose passion was evident even at this distance. William Darcy, of course, was the man. Bill had known it instantly, even before Darcy raised his head, brushing his lips against Elizabeth’s forehead while still holding her in his arms.
Bill stood in the darkness, jealousy gnawing at his stomach as Darcy dipped his head to kiss her again and then slowly released her. As both men watched her intently, she returned to the building, pausing in the doorway to smile and wave before she disappeared inside.
Darcy soon drove off in his ostentatious sports car. You know what they say about men who drive flashy cars. They’re compensating for other deficiencies. Bill grinned with spiteful satisfaction as he slid behind the wheel of his solid, reliable Volvo station wagon.
As he rode the placid waves of his waterbed, Bill wondered what to do with this information. His heart burned with anger toward Darcy. Promised to Anne de Bourgh, the miserable cad was shaming both his fiancée and poor, innocent Elizabeth with his philandering. He didn’t deserve either of them. Although Darcy’s talent had earned Bill’s deep veneration, the man stood for too many things that Bill despised. Born to almost unimaginable wealth, everything had been handed to him on a silver platter. No doubt his family’s connections had smoothed the way to his successful career, saving him the struggles that other musicians, even the most talented ones, had to face.
And why did women always flock around tall, imposing men? Darcy ought to be satisfied with winning Anne’s hand; she was a princess. But that wasn’t enough for him. Now he had seduced Elizabeth.
Bill had noted their exit from the party and their lengthy absence, and now he knew how they had spent their time. He labored to turn his thoughts away from the image of that man selfishly using Elizabeth for his carnal pleasure, all the while intending to discard her and form an alliance with the de Bourghs once he’d had his fun. Or maybe he planned to keep them both, with Anne as his wife and Elizabeth as his mistress.
He briefly considered sharing the news with Catherine de Bourgh, but he wasn’t certain how she would react. She would be displeased, but she might excuse Darcy’s caddish behavior as pre-wedding sowing of wild oats, turning her wrath on poor, vulnerable Elizabeth instead. With just a few phone calls, Dr. de Bourgh could see to it that no conservatory or music department would hire Elizabeth, now or ever.
Although it pained him to conceal such important information from Dr. de Bourgh, he decided to protect Elizabeth. He would pretend to believe that she and Darcy were nothing but casual friends, but he would make sure that she knew about Darcy’s understanding with Anne. He had shared the information at Rosings, but perhaps she hadn’t understood, or foolishly believed that she could win Darcy away from Anne.
Of course Darcy would choose Anne for a wife. It would be almost a royal alliance, the union of two dynasties. Elizabeth, lovely as she was, couldn’t possibly compete. But Bill would warn her, and perhaps save her in the process. She would be broken-hearted at first, but perhaps she would come to see him in a new light, as her protector, a man deserving of her trust … and her heart.
Bill Collins slept the sleep of the righteous that night as he charged through his dreams on a white horse, his armor polished to a high sheen, vanquishing the dark knight who had dared to sully the beautiful maiden’s virtue. As the crowd cheered and the queen nodded in approval, Bill gleefully accepted the maiden’s hand as his reward.
1 The Tenderloin district is generally considered the sketchiest neighborhood in San Francisco (and the most likely place to find prostitutes, drug dealers, and strip clubs).