By the time Elizabeth reached her apartment and dropped her purse on the kitchen table, regret and indignation were locked in a struggle for control. Regret temporarily rocketed into the lead. If she had forced the issue, he would have come upstairs, and they could have talked things out. And after that, they could have picked up where they left off in the taxi.
Elizabeth wasn’t unsympathetic to his predicament. His patience and consideration had been, on the whole, admirable, all the more so because she was probably one of the few women ever to refuse him anything. She had often witnessed the attention William garnered from women, sometimes due to his celebrity status, but often just because of his handsome face and the aura of power and privilege he exuded. Richard’s quip about the “William Darcy Magnetic Field” made perfect sense.
At events on campus, she could always locate him by seeking out the swarm of female students surrounding him. Female restaurant servers loved to flirt with him; one had even written her phone number on the check, presenting it to William with a suggestive smile. He had never given Elizabeth the slightest cause for discomfort or jealousy. But what if he didn’t want to wait anymore? He might decide that if she wasn’t willing, he’d find someone who was.
Her feet, operating on automatic pilot, propelled her down the hall to her bedroom. She undressed, tossed her clothes on a chair, and pulled a nightshirt over her head. As she stared at her pale, tense reflection in the mirror, her head was filled by a vision of William lying in another woman’s embrace, his hands eagerly exploring her body.
Before she knew what she was doing, she was reaching for her phone. She would call him and explain somehow, and then—
No. Stop this. Once before she had allowed herself to be pushed into intimacy against her better judgment, and she refused to repeat the mistake. Yes, he had waited a long time for her to be ready, but she had never agreed to a timetable or a deadline for sleeping with him. How dare he act as though he has some sacred right to dictate the terms of their physical relationship? Indignation surged into the lead in her internal battle, and Elizabeth clutched it like a life preserver.
She proceeded to the kitchen, not hungry but seeking distraction. The freezer yielded a container of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, but she scowled when she found it nearly empty. Still, a few spoonfuls of ice cream were better than none.
Now, for something salty to go with the ice cream. She located a half-empty bag of pretzel sticks in the pantry and hauled her snack into the living room, digging the last of the ice cream from the bottom of the container as she walked. She felt better already.
Yeah, right. You’re a terrible liar.
Upstairs at last, his remaining energy exhausted, he dragged himself through the foyer and down the hall to his bedroom. With a loud groan, he collapsed on the bed and buried his head in a pillow.
He had spent the evening engulfed in a haze of desire, scarcely aware of anyone but Elizabeth. She had again exhibited the provocative girl-woman quality that never failed to tie him into intricate knots. Her lush curves had filled her clinging black sweater to perfection, yet the lace at the sweater’s neckline and cuffs lent a touch of sweet innocence. Her legs, revealed by her skirt and enhanced by sheer black stockings, had nearly stopped his heart, yet the pleats in the skirt lent her a youthful air.
It wasn’t only her appearance that had driven him into such a volatile state. To say that he had missed her during his time in New York was like saying that the Pacific Ocean was a bit on the large side. Their lengthy telephone conversations had only increased his longing for her presence. Any remaining doubts he might have harbored about his wishes for the future had been swept away. He couldn’t live without her, not now, not ever.
And to what depths had love brought him tonight? Pawing her in the back of a taxi, of all places, violating both his privacy and hers, and then being rejected yet again. He wasn’t sure how many more times he could bear to hear her say ‘no.’
For her sake, he had done his best to be patient. William “Patience” Darcy, yes, indeed. He had reined in his passions, waiting for Elizabeth to lead the way to greater intimacy. His task had become doubly challenging once Dr. Salinger had removed the prohibition on sex, but for her sake, William had summoned up all his self-control. But she hadn’t led the way. They had been standing still. And he thought he finally knew why. She enjoyed his kisses and wasn’t averse to his touch in the right circumstances, but she didn’t crave him as he craved her. Her body didn’t burn at his slightest touch.
And she doesn’t love me, not the way I love her. But he was a fool to expect anything else. His mother had warned him that his emotional nature could cause him pain. “That’s why your music is so powerful,” she had said, not long before her death. “But you and I have hearts that love too deeply, and are too easily broken.”
He rolled onto his back, staring at the faint beams of light flickering on the ceiling and longing for sleep to claim him.
Elizabeth lay curled up on the living room sofa under a cream-colored afghan. The discarded ice cream container lay on the coffee table alongside the pretzel bag, now empty. The flickering of the television provided the only light as it played an old movie.
Jane still wasn’t home. Elizabeth wasn’t sure what time it was, but it seemed as though she had been lying on the sofa for at least a week awaiting her sister’s return. Jane would help her sort through the mass of conflicting impulses warring for control. Assuming that Jane was coming home, of course; she might be in bed at the penthouse right now.
Elizabeth nearly shuddered in a visceral reaction to the phrase “in bed at the penthouse.” Although she hadn’t admitted it when William spoke of his dreams, she’d had dreams of her own in which, clasped against his strong, lean body, they sank together into the softness of her bed, dreams from which she awoke trembling with fierce longing for his touch.
She struggled to distract herself from such incendiary thoughts by returning to the question of her sister’s whereabouts. They were probably just out searching for the perfect martini. Jane wouldn’t sleep with Richard—probably not ever, and certainly not on a first date, if it could even be considered a date.
And as for me, not only don’t I leap into bed on first dates, I don’t tiptoe into bed on … let’s see, how many times have I been out with William?
A raucous ad for a furniture warehouse blared from the television, the spokesperson shouting a rapid-fire volley of words. Grimacing, Elizabeth reached over her head, fumbling blindly for the remote control and knocking it onto the floor. She bent over to retrieve it and clicked the “mute” button, plunging the room into silence. Then she resumed her recumbent position on the sofa, stuffing a throw pillow behind her head and bundling the afghan around her against the increasingly chilly air wafting in the open window.
What was she waiting for? She loved him, more than she’d thought it possible to love anyone, and although they hadn’t said the words to each other, she could feel that he loved her, too. Five months had passed since their first kiss at Crissy Field, and their attraction that weekend had grown into a passion the likes of which she had never known. She had spent most nights during his recent absence imagining what it would be like to have him in her bed—or to share his, and she knew only too well how much he wanted her. Most people who knew they were a couple probably assumed that they’d been sleeping together for some time now.
Is this still about Michael?
She briefly considered the possibility, but then shook her head slowly. Michael is in the past, where he belongs. But the lessons she had learned then had stayed with her, making it difficult to trust any man.
Doesn’t it say something that William focuses completely on me when we’re together, that he treats me like I’m the only woman in the world? How many guys have I dated whose eyes would drift away in the middle of conversations if an attractive woman walked by? Or who would take me to a party but leave with someone else?
The judgmental voice in her head responded. Big deal. So maybe he’s just subtler, or a better player, than the others. Try again. What has he done that shows any sort of commitment to you and to the relationship?
How about the fact that he called me at least once a day, sometimes twice, from New York? That he wanted to hear everything I was doing, even silly little details, and to tell me all about his day, too?
Nobody’s disputing that he likes you. But he stayed away for four extra days, so maybe he wasn’t that anxious to see you after all.
It was time for the heavy artillery. What about the fact that he asked me to spend Thanksgiving with his family? An invitation like that is usually a sign of serious intentions.
If you’re so sure of his feelings, why are you all alone, curled up in the fetal position on the sofa?
Elizabeth shook her head as though to dislodge the negativity. Really, the invitation to New York, and his wanting me to get to know his family—those things show that he loves me. I’m sure of it.
But there’s being sure, and then there’s being sure. You were sure Michael loved you, weren’t you?
So apparently it was still about Michael.
The doorbell rang, startling her. Jane must have forgotten her key; no one else would be arriving so late.
“Just a minute!” She hopped up from the sofa, shivering as the afghan landed on the floor and the chilly air raised instant goosebumps on her skin. She retrieved the afghan and draped it around her shoulders, clutching it to herself as she crossed the room. She was about to fling the door open, but thought better of it and checked the peephole first.
When she saw William standing in the hallway, her heart began to pound. She reached for the doorknob, but an involuntary downward glance stopped her. Despite the afghan, her nightshirt left a significant expanse of her legs bare. Considering the subject of their argument, a little more coverage seemed like a good idea. She opened the door a crack and peeked out. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and she shut the door.
She dashed down the hall, nearly stubbing her toe as she rounded the corner into her bedroom. She rejected the idea of throwing on the clothes she had worn earlier that night, which lay gathering wrinkles on her chair. Then she spied her bathrobe in the closet and shrugged into it. She combed her fingers through her hair, attempting to tame it as she ran back down the hall.
She had never seen the ordinarily dapper William looking so disheveled, from his wrinkled trousers to his unruly hair and the stubble forming a dark shadow on his jaw and neck. His bleary eyes held an anxious expression. “May I come in?”
She stepped back and allowed him to enter, astonished by his sudden appearance at this hour, not that she knew what hour it was. “I assume somebody downstairs let you into the building?”
“Yes. I had to wait a while for someone to come along.”
“Why didn’t you just buzz me on the intercom?”
“I thought you were probably asleep and wouldn’t hear it. And if you were awake, that you’d tell me to go away. But I thought if you saw me, you’d take pity on my wretched state.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together, working hard to stifle a smile. He wore a mournful expression as he shifted from one foot to another, his hands shoved in his trouser pockets. She considered waiting for him to start their discussion, but she sensed that he needed a sign from from her. “Come sit down and let’s talk.”
She saw relief flood his face, and he followed her to the living room sofa. As he seated himself, she made a brief detour to close the window.
“Of course you know why I’m here.” He was watching her progress around the room intently, perhaps trying to gauge her mood.
She switched on a lamp, turned off the TV, and seated herself beside him. “Let’s assume for a moment that I’m not psychic. Just tell me what’s going on. I thought you were going home to get some sleep.”
“I did. Go home, that is. But I couldn’t sleep.”
“Neither could I. I’ve been lying here watching TV and ridding the kitchen of the menace of junk food by eating it.”
“I came because ….” He paused, looking so miserable that she wanted to draw him into her arms and cradle his head on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Lizzy. Can you ever forgive me?”
The sincere contrition in his voice, especially coming from a man for whom apology wasn’t a natural talent, melted the remnants of her anger, but she maintained a neutral expression. “Forgive you for what, precisely?”
He shifted awkwardly and sighed. “For boorish behavior in the extreme. And for blaming you for my frustration. You’re the cause of it, but that doesn’t mean you’re to blame, and it certainly doesn’t entitle me to lash out at you.” He was staring at her, his eyes watchful and tense.
She covered his hand with hers. “Apology accepted.”
He turned his hand, entwining his fingers with hers, and a weary smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “Thank you.” He leaned forward and kissed her, a delicate, lingering touch that she felt down to her toes. “You’re the last person I would ever want to hurt, Lizzy. I hope you know that.”
“I do. But we’re stubborn, both of us, and sometimes we’re better at talking than at listening.”
William turned a curious glance on her. “Which reminds me. You were trying to tell me something in the taxi.”
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. She was hoping he’d forgotten that. “I don’t think it matters now.”
“I think it probably does.” He brushed a tendril of hair away from her cheek.
“Okay. I didn’t mean ‘wait’ as in ‘wait a month,’ or a week, or even a day. I meant ‘wait till we get upstairs.’ You did notice we weren’t alone, right? Cab driver in the front seat and all that?”
He winced. “Again, I’m sorry. I know they say that cab drivers have seen everything, but I never intended to compromise our privacy that way.”
“I’m glad we agree on that.”
He hadn’t made any comment on the first part of her remark. She was busy congratulating herself on her escape when his eyes widened and he shot a confused glance at her. “Hold on. You meant ‘wait till we get upstairs’?”
“And the other shoe drops.”
“You were trying to tell me that you were ready to make love?”
“I thought I was.”
William heaved a loud sigh, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “You were inviting me upstairs to your bedroom, and I didn’t notice because I was too busy complaining that you hadn’t invited me up to your bedroom?”
He bent forward, elbows resting on his knees, and massaged his temples. “I can’t believe I did that.” He gave her a sidelong glance, a ghost of a smile flitting across his face. “You must have thought I’d lost my mind.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But it would have been a good idea for you to delay the freak-out until I finished my sentence.”
He settled back against the sofa. “It was the word ‘wait.’ By now it’s like a red flag in front of a bull.”
“I know you’re frustrated,” she said gently, taking his hand and raising it to her lips. “And I’m glad you’re so attracted to me. But … I know this is the last thing you want to hear right now, but by the time I got back upstairs, I realized that I wasn’t as ready as I thought.”
“But why not?” he asked, the anguish in his voice astonishing her. “Why don’t you want me?”
“Is that what you think?”
“What else should I think? I know you asked for some time, but that was two months ago. I was sure you’d be ready by now. And if not, it has to mean that you don’t feel much of an attraction to me.”
She turned toward him on the sofa and took his face in her hands, his stubbly jaw rough against her palms. “You are so wrong,” she said in a firm tone, looking deep into his eyes. “Listen to me. You’re the sexiest man I’ve ever met. I’m not even sure who’d be in second place, you’re so far in the lead.”
His eyes were wary. “So I’m good to look at, apparently.”
“Being the sexiest man in the world isn’t enough? Okay, then, how about this? Seeing you or hearing your voice makes me weak in the knees. And whenever I’m close to you, it just makes me want to be even closer.” She leaned forward. “And by the way, Mr. Darcy, you are an amazing kisser.” She touched her lips to his.
“That takes two.” He was listening intently, but she could tell she hadn’t convinced him yet.
“And I admit, I’ve had some dreams … no, actually, some fantasies about being with you. In bed.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Is that so? Any you’d like to share?”
Elizabeth laughed softly. “I don’t think that would be wise. By the way, you’re particularly sexy when you’ve got that wicked glint in your eye, like you do now.”
The wicked glint intensified, nearly obliterating Elizabeth’s self-restraint. “You probably shouldn’t have told me that.” He lowered his head to hers, kissing her avidly and enfolding her in his arms.
A few minutes later, they sat back against the sofa, nestled close together. Elizabeth kissed his cheek. “I hope that dispenses with the notion that I don’t find you tempting.”
“I suppose so.”
She sensed that his grudging tone was only partly a tease, and decided to try to cajole him into a more cheerful mood. “You’re just not accustomed to any woman turning you down, are you? Ordinarily I’m sure they fall at your feet, rending their garments while begging you to take them on the spot.”
He snickered. “Absolutely. It happens all the time. Except, that is, with the one woman I wish would behave that way.”
“Oh, you’d just be bored. I bet the only reason you find me interesting is because of the challenge.” She sometimes wondered if this was true.
“The word ‘challenge’ doesn’t even scratch the surface where you’re concerned. But can we be serious for a minute?”
Elizabeth looked up at him, eyebrows raised.
“You haven’t explained why we’re still waiting. If this is something we both want, then I don’t understand what’s standing in our way.”
“There’s more to it than that. Our relationship matters, too; I mean, where we stand as a couple.”
He frowned slightly. “But don’t you think everything’s going well?”
“I do, mostly. But … I’m not sure quite how to explain it.”
He sat quietly, stroking her arm, demonstrating the patience that had deserted him a few hours before. Finally an answer crystallized in her mind, and she decided to illustrate it with an example. “Back in August, did Dr. Salinger tell you that you couldn’t have sex for a while?”
“How did you know that?” He shoved a hand roughly through his hair. “I didn’t tell anyone but Richard. Did he say something?”
“No. I figured it out from something you said the day of your doctor’s appointment.”
“So you knew all along?”
“I didn’t know for sure, but I had a strong suspicion. Do you understand why I brought this up? You couldn’t talk to me about it, and I was afraid to ask for fear of upsetting you.”
“Can you blame me for not wanting anyone to know?”
“But I’m not just anyone. I thought we were closer than that.”
“That’s the problem. You’re my girlfriend, and I didn’t want you to ….” He shrugged and shook his head. “I doubt a woman can understand what it’s like for a man to be unmanned.”
“But you weren’t. You were just supposed to wait till you were healthier.”
“All I know is, I felt like a eunuch.”
Elizabeth managed not to laugh at the disgust with which he spat out the word ‘eunuch,’ but she couldn’t erase her smile. “Poor William.”
“It’s not funny. I was mortified.”
“I’m sorry.” She took a breath and wiped away her smile. “I assume the ban has been lifted by now?”
He nodded reluctantly. “A few weeks ago.”
“I understand that it was embarrassing, but doesn’t that seem like something two people should be able to talk about if they’re considering taking their relationship into the bedroom?”
William hesitated. “It’s difficult for me to discuss personal things. It’s not because of you, Lizzy. I don’t share things like that with anyone.”
“I know you’re a private person, but I still think it’s a problem. It makes me feel like you’re hiding things.”
“What about you? You told me the night of the Rosings party that you’d had some bad experiences with men that made you cautious. But you’ve never trusted me with the details.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. “Don’t worry about that.”
He withdrew his arm from around her shoulder. “So you expect me to open up, but you’re entitled to keep secrets.”
Elizabeth was trapped, and she knew it. She owed him some explanation, as little as she wanted to offer one. “I’m moving on from it, and there are some things I’d rather just leave behind. But how about if I give you an abridged version?”
His eyes filled with sympathetic warmth. “I didn’t mean to coerce you into telling me. If it’s too painful, you don’t have to.”
She was tempted to use the escape hatch he had just given her, but he was right. If she expected him to trust her with his secrets, she had to do the same. “There was a guy in college. I thought I loved him, and he said he loved me. But it was a lie, designed to manipulate me into ….” She stopped and pressed her lips together.
William tightened his arm around her, and she nestled into his comforting warmth.
“Anyway,” she continued, “he used my feelings against me to get what he wanted, and afterwards he humiliated me. It was my first serious relationship, or at least I thought it was, and the first time I’d ever been gone to bed with anyone. I swore I’d never let a man use me that way again. Since then I’ve been … wary where men are concerned.”
He caressed her cheek, and she turned her head to brush her lips against his knuckles. “I’m sorry,” he said, the sympathy in his deep voice bringing tears to her eyes. “He was a fool if he didn’t appreciate you.”
She blinked back her tears, ordering them to stop. “I was the fool. If you walk around being naïve and stupid, people are going to take advantage of you.”
“You might have been innocent, but you could never be stupid, cara.” His thumb continued to caress her cheek in a soothing rhythm.
“I like it when you call me that.”
“Good, because I like saying it.”
They were quiet for a short time, and then Elizabeth spoke softly. “So that’s the problem. When it feels like we don’t quite trust each other, I start wondering what’s going on, and I start remembering, and ….” She sighed. “But it’s not fair to you. You’re not like Michael.”
“That was his name?”
She nodded. “I know it’s irrational to let the past interfere with the present when they’re completely unrelated.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“I want you to be able to trust me, Lizzy. The next time you think I’m hiding something, ask me about it. I promise I’ll tell you the truth. And if you think I’m evading a question, just remind me of my promise.”
“Ooh, this is my big chance to find out about all your ex-girlfriends.”
“Let me rephrase that,” he replied, grinning. “I promise I’ll either tell you the truth or tell you to mind your own business.”
They fell silent after that. Elizabeth burrowed closer, savoring the warmth of his body, and her eyes drifted shut. She felt him move and opened her eyes to find him grimacing and massaging his temples with one hand.
“Are you okay? Do you have a headache?”
“I’m just tired. I was up early this morning, and with the time difference between San Francisco and New York, it’s been a long day.”
She sat up straight, jolted out of her languorous state by a flood of worry. He rarely got headaches anymore, unless he’d been hiding them from her. “Are you sure that’s all it is?”
“I think so. I get jet lag headaches from time to time, especially if I start the trip sleep-deprived.”
“Let’s see what we can do about that.” Elizabeth rose to her feet. “I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later, she emerged from the kitchen balancing two mugs of William’s favorite herbal tea and a bottle of ibuprofen.
His smile was warm, his eyes crinkling at the corners as she approached him. “You’re the prettiest nurse I’ve ever seen.”
Elizabeth resumed her seat beside him, watching as he chased down two tablets with a sip of the tea. “Anything else I can get you?”
He raised his eyebrows. “As a matter of fact, yes. Another time when I had a headache, I rested my head on a particularly comfortable pillow.” His dimples flashed briefly.
She slid down to one end of the sofa and placed a throw pillow on her lap. “Be my guest.”
He deposited his mug of tea on the coffee table, kicked off his shoes, and lowered his head onto her lap, stretching out his long legs with a deep sigh. “Mmmm. Best medicine in the world.”
Their eyes met in a long, contented gaze as she stroked his hair, smoothing the thick waves. As she watched, his eyelids drooped and closed, the slow, regular rise and fall of his chest announcing that he was asleep.
Elizabeth stretched to reach for the lamp, doing her best not to disturb him as she switched it off. Then she leaned her head against the sofa back, her fingers still toying with his hair, and closed her eyes.
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them halfway, squinting against the sudden flood of light.
“Lizzy?” It was Jane’s voice. She continued, but in an abruptly hushed tone. “Oh, I’m sorry!” The overhead light went out again, returning the room to darkness except for a few weak rays from a light outside the window.
Elizabeth blinked and rubbed her eyes. William’s head still rested in her lap; a glance at his face confirmed that he was still asleep. “We just kind of nodded off,” she whispered. “I guess I should wake him.”
“No, don’t do that. It’s late. He might as well stay till morning.”
“I may have to stay here, too. I don’t see how I can stand up without waking him.” But as much as she had enjoyed helping William to doze off, she found herself craving her warm, comfortable bed.
“Hold on a second.”
Jane tiptoed from the room, returning a minute later with a pillow and a blanket. “Put the pillow under his head, and maybe then you can ease out without disturbing him.”
“Thanks. I’ll give it a try.”
“I’m off to bed. I’m exhausted.”
“Don’t I get to hear about your night?”
“Richard is fun to be with and we had a good time. He has an amazing nose for the hot spots in town; he found places I’d never heard of despite living here my whole life.”
Jane disappeared into the bathroom to prepare for bed, and Elizabeth gently lifted William’s head and slipped the pillow beneath it. She rose gingerly to her feet, adjusting the pillow under his head.
William stirred, his eyelids fluttering. “Lizzy?” he mumbled.
“Shhh,” she whispered. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
Elizabeth covered him with the blanket and then stood motionless, gazing at him. He looked boyish, cuddly, and utterly beguiling. She had to quell an impulse to wake him, take his hand, and lead him into her bedroom for the rest of the night.
Stop it. The judgmental voice had returned for an encore. Exactly what do you have in mind?
We could just hold each other while we sleep. The idea was irresistible. She reached down to nudge him awake and make this suggestion, but her hand froze just shy of his shoulder.
The judgmental voice had one last salvo to fire. Do you seriously believe that if you end up in bed together, you’ll just sleep?
With a rueful grin, she bent over his sleeping form and kissed his cheek. “Good night,” she whispered. “I love you.” It was easy to say the words, as long as he wouldn’t hear them.