Elizabeth opened her eyes, awakened by a tickling sensation behind her ear and a low voice that seemed to be singing. She focused her attention and identified the source of both stimuli: it was William, hovering over her and crooning softly in her ear. “Happy birthday, dear Lizzy, happy birthday to you.”
She snuggled back against him with a drowsy laugh. “I only heard the end of it; you have to sing it again.”
“Not a chance. That was my debut performance and my swan song, rolled into one.”
She rolled over to face him, surprised to find him wearing his robe, his hair combed and his face clean-shaven. “Well, anyway, I finally got my song. Thank you, dear sir.”
“You’re welcome, madam. And in honor of this special day, I have one final gift for you.”
She sat up, clutching the sheet to her chest. “Another one? Wow.”
He inclined his head toward the dresser, and she saw a small tray with coffee service. “I’m fixing you breakfast in bed. I just brought coffee for now, but I’ll bring the rest in a minute.”
“You’re fixing me breakfast?” She had never expected this. “You are a wonderful guy.”
Despite his self-deprecating shrug, she could see how pleased he was with her praise. “It’s just going to be juice and bagels. Oh, and Mrs. Hill left us some apple cinnamon muffins.”
“That sounds perfect. You know, if word of this gets out, your female fans won’t be satisfied with lining up outside your dressing room after concerts. They’ll start storming the stage and tossing you their room keys.”
She thought she saw a faint blush creeping up to his face. “Do you want your coffee now?” he asked as he rose from the bed.
“No, thanks. I’m going to wait a few minutes.”
He nodded. “Then I’ll be right back with breakfast.”
As soon as William was gone, Elizabeth hopped out of bed and raced into the bathroom. She drew the sheer curtains aside and looked out the window. The sky was a pale gray, a steady drizzle dampening the sidewalks below. It was a morning tailor-made for lounging in bed; unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.
By the time he returned with the breakfast tray, she was sitting up in bed in her nightshirt, her hair brushed into a semblance of order, a coffee cup in her hand. He set the tray on the nightstand, poured himself some coffee, and joined her on the bed.
“And the tray is even decorated,” she remarked. “I am impressed.” A single red rose in a bud vase adorned the tray. She leaned over to kiss him. “Thank you. This was a lovely surprise.”
“I have to admit, it was Sonya’s idea. I talked to her yesterday, and she said since you were staying over—apparently Richard told her that—I should treat you to breakfast in bed on your birthday.” He leaned back against the headboard and handed her a glass of juice.
“Well, then, she had a great idea. And you’re not worried about sullying the silk sheets with crumbs or, worse yet, a coffee spill?”
He shrugged, smiling. “You’re worth the risk.”
“Wow, coming from Mr. Clean, that’s one of the sweetest things anybody’s ever said to me.”
They ate their breakfast, chatting about inconsequential things. Elizabeth labored to keep the conversation light, not ready to contemplate his impending departure. “What gave you this burst of energy so early in the morning?”
“I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was tempted to wake you up, but I’d already done that once.” He smiled, stroking her cheek. “And thoroughly enjoyed it.”
“So did I,” she purred, snuggling against him.
She had awakened some time before dawn to find him spooned behind her, his hands expertly awakening her desire as they slid over her body. It had been a gentle and leisurely experience far different from the passionate encounter earlier that night, yet one that had bathed Elizabeth in sensual delight.
He set his coffee cup on the nightstand and wrapped her in his arms, and they fell silent. She had opened the drapes earlier, affording a view of rivulets of rainwater streaming down the windows.
“I don’t want to leave you.” His voice pulled her out of her reverie.
She answered him with a kiss, and they sank down to recline on the bed, still kissing. When he finally lifted his head, his words astonished her. “Come with me to New York, Lizzy.”
His impulsive suggestion appealed to her sense of adventure, but there were practical matters to consider. “I can’t just leave town suddenly, any more than you can cancel your recital at the last minute and stay here with me.”
“Yes, you can, cara,” he whispered in her ear. “I need you.” His breath was hot as he covered her neck with slow kisses that soon had her squirming. “I’ve got a big, soft bed at home, and a bathtub built for two. We’ll make love until we’re too weak to move.”
Then his lips were on hers again, hot and hungry, demanding unconditional surrender. It was impossible to say yes, yet she was finding it just as unthinkable to say no. She saw a vision of William rising from the oversized tub, a thousand water droplets glistening on the masculine form she had explored so thoroughly last night. She saw him striding across the bathroom with the grace of a panther, his eyes dark with passion as he approached her, and—
She shook her head, banishing that delectable image. “I love the idea of you, the bed, and the tub. But right now I have exams to give and students getting ready for auditions who are counting on my help.”
“Couldn’t you cancel some classes?” he asked, unfastening the top buttons of her nightshirt. “Your students won’t mind.”
That was probably true, but it was also irrelevant. “And what would your grandmother think? I can just hear it. ‘Sorry, Gran, but I can’t talk right now. Elizabeth and I are going upstairs to cavort in my bathtub.’”
He flopped onto his back, staring at the ceiling, and exhaled a loud sigh.
“And I have a performance review scheduled with Catherine de Bourgh next Friday. She’d probably fire me for canceling all those classes. But even if she didn’t, how would I explain canceling my meeting with her? I doubt she’d be sympathetic to the idea that you need me in your bed in New York.”
“Not just in my bed,” he replied. “But I see your point. And as for Gran ….” He sighed again. “You’re right about that, too.”
“Besides, with all your travel, this is the way it’s going to be, so we’d better get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it. But there is something that I want to do.” He finished unbuttoning her nightshirt.
“Do we have time?” Her rehearsal started at 9:00, and he needed to leave for the airport not long thereafter.
He spread her nightshirt open and leaned over her, his eyes glittering with hunger. Then he lowered his head to press hot kisses to her neck, his mouth drifting lower an inch at a time. “Last night you got your chance to memorize me,” he murmured. “This morning, it’s my turn.”
She was about to ask what time it was when his hands found a vulnerable spot. A shaft of pure electricity flashed through her. “Okay,” she gasped, lying back on the bed in an attitude of surrender, “we’ll make time.”
William pressed his lips to Elizabeth’s forehead. “I’m going to tell the driver to go around the block. I can’t let you go, not yet.”
She glanced at her watch. She was already half an hour late for rehearsal; apologies and explanations would be necessary even without additional delays, but somehow she couldn’t make herself care.
However, it was too late to divert the limo from its path; it was pulling into the conservatory parking lot. William lowered the glass separating them from the driver. “Give us a minute,” he said. Then he raised the glass and cupped Elizabeth’s face in his hands.
“Are you sure you can’t come to New York with me?”
“I wish I could, but we’ve already discussed this.”
“I know.” He lowered his head to hers, and they clung to each other, kissing repeatedly. When at last they drew apart, Elizabeth blinked back her tears, determined not to cry.
“I should go,” she said, smoothing his hair. “Are you sure you have time to take care of my stuff?”
“Absolutely.” Since she was already late for rehearsal, he had offered to deliver her overnight bag and her birthday gifts to the apartment on his way to the airport.
One gift, though, would stay with her. She fingered the pendant, which sparkled around her neck. “I’ll wear this every day.”
“Good. I hope it reminds you that my heart is yours.”
She lost the battle with tears as one rolled down her cheek. “Call me when you get to New York.”
“I will.” His dark-eyed gaze locked on her. “Ti amo, cara.” His mouth descended to hers, and she welcomed his fervent kiss.
Absorbed in thoughts of Elizabeth, William nearly passed her apartment door and had to halt abruptly, almost dropping some of the items he was juggling. As he struggled to regain control of Elizabeth’s birthday gifts and overnight bag, his attention was seized by voices on the other side of the door.
“You’re seeing Charles Bingley again today? So there’s still a chance! You may be able to get him after all.” Although William had seen Mrs. Bennet only once since the rehearsal dinner, her voice was unforgettable, possessing all the auditory charm of fingernails on a chalkboard.
“Charles and I are friends, Mom. Anything else is in the past.”
“Nonsense. If you made him love you once, you can do it again. If only his father hadn’t ruined everything by trying to force you to sign those horrid papers! You could be living in that gorgeous Victorian house, with a maid and a fancy car and a closet full of beautiful clothes, and plenty of money to do whatever you want. But maybe it’s not too late. When you see him today, wear something that shows off your figure. And—oh, heavens, I don’t need to tell you what to do. Just remind him why he fell in love with you in the first place.”
William strained to hear Jane’s response, but voices echoing from down the hall interfered. He imagined how he looked, skulking in the hallway, and stabbed at the doorbell.
Fortunately, Jane answered almost immediately. “William, come in. Lizzy called to tell me you’d be stopping by.”
“William Darcy! What a surprise. And what beautiful flowers!” Mrs. Bennet nodded at the crystal vase of red roses in his hand. “Lizzy’s not here. She’s at some silly rehearsal.”
“Hello, Mrs. Bennet.” William nodded in her direction, grateful that Elizabeth didn’t seem to take after her mother in any way. He crossed to the dining area and deposited Elizabeth’s gifts on the table.
“I was just asking Andrew the other day at breakfast, ‘How long has it been since we saw William?’” Mrs. Bennet planted her hands on her hips, shaking her head. “Not that he heard my question—he just kept his nose buried in his newspaper. I’m always telling him to get his ears checked, but he says his hearing is fine.”
William pressed his lips together to stifle a smirk, leaving Jane to step into the breach. “Mom, you saw William last month when you and Dad came up to the city for dinner, remember?”
“Oh, yes. But that was a while ago.” Mrs. Bennet took a step toward William with a proprietary air that raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
The Bennets had stopped by unexpectedly to visit Jane and Elizabeth after dinner in the city one evening, and William had been there as well. Mrs. Bennet’s shocked expression—evidence that Elizabeth had concealed her involvement with William from her mother—had soon given way to an overly familiar manner that had pushed William into disgusted silence.
Mrs. Bennet was still talking. “I’m always telling Lizzy she should bring you down for a visit. She just says she’s too busy, or that you are.”
“Jane, I’m sorry, but I’m pressed for time, and—”
Mrs. Bennet stepped toward him again. Her loud voice filled the room and escaped into the hall, something William wanted to do as well. “We’re so glad that you and our Lizzy have hit it off so well. In fact, I was just speaking to Lydia about it the other night. You remember Lydia, of course—my youngest, and she’s going to be a star someday! She just got a part in a crowd scene in the new movie starring … who did she say it was? Oh, dear, I can’t remember, but he’s such a hunk! Lydia’s going to try to meet him on the set, maybe get to know him better … what was his name? Well, it doesn’t matter. Anyway,—”
“William has a flight to catch, Mom,” Jane said gently. “I don’t think he has time for a long chat.”
“A flight? You’re leaving Lizzy? On her birthday?”
“I have business in New York.” He intentionally allowed his tone to communicate the additional message, Not that it’s any of your business. A few more minutes with Mrs. Bennet, and he’d be ready to jump out the nearest convenient window. Or an inconvenient one, if necessary.
“New York? What’s wrong with young men these days? Always flying around, never staying in one place. Charles Bingley keeps popping back and forth between here and LA as if he were a ping pong ball, and with you it’s New York.”
William’s chin jutted out. “My family lives there, and the foundation I run is there as well.”
“I thought you could do business anywhere these days, with the Internet and all. And your family could come for a visit. I’m sure they’d love it here. We have everything New York has, you know, but with nicer weather.”
“Remember, Mom, William is a concert pianist; his job requires him to travel.” Jane gave him a harried smile. “I understand there were roses everywhere last night. Lizzy said it was a lovely evening.”
“It was,” he said softly. He handed Jane a package wrapped in silver paper with a white ribbon. “Could you please give this to her at dinner tonight? And this too.” It was a single red rosebud wrapped in green tissue. “There’s a note inside the wrapping.”
“I love the way you’re showering her with roses.”
“I want her to know I’m thinking of her tonight, even though I can’t be there.”
Mrs. Bennet took the rose from Jane and sniffed it. William half expected her to dig out the card and read it aloud. “You certainly treat Lizzy well. But, of course, she’s a remarkable girl. I’m sure you know that by now.”
“Yes, I do,” William answered in a cool tone, emphasizing every word. It annoyed him that Mrs. Bennet was never similarly effusive in Elizabeth’s presence.
“You gave her a beautiful necklace too, I understand.” Jane smiled at William. “I can’t wait to see it.”
“Jewelry, too? How lovely!” Mrs. Bennet’s eyes gleamed, and William could almost hear the adding machine in her brain whirring as she computed the total value of her daughter’s birthday gifts.
William drew Jane to the door and gestured at Elizabeth’s overnight bag, which sat on the floor in the hallway. She nodded, and then addressed Mrs. Bennet. “Mom, you wanted to fill a thermos with coffee to take with you, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and then I have to get going.” Mrs. Bennet bustled into the kitchen.
Jane collected the overnight bag and slipped it into the hall closet. “Thank you for being discreet about this, William. Mom probably won’t question why you had to deliver the gifts, but the overnight bag would be different. And really, it might not bother Mom to know where Lizzy spent last night, but ….”
“But it would embarrass Lizzy if your mother ever mentioned it. I should be going; I’m running behind schedule.”
“I understand. Are you and Charles still planning to meet at the airport?”
“Yes, though we won’t have much time.”
“Then I won’t keep you. Thanks so much for bringing Lizzy’s things, and I hope you have a good trip.”
“You’re leaving, William?” Mrs. Bennet poked her head out of the kitchen, leading William to wonder how much of the conversation she had overheard. “I have to be on my way, too. I’m going to Lake Tahoe for a few days with friends.”
Her destination surprised William. Mrs. Bennet didn’t seem like the outdoorsy type. “How nice. I hear the scenery up there is beautiful.”
“The scenery?” Mrs. Bennet’s shrill laugh rang out. “Who cares about that? We’ll be too busy at the slot machines.”
“I see. Best of luck to you, then. Goodbye, Jane, Mrs. Bennet.” He turned away, shaking his head at his obtuseness. Of course Mrs. Bennet’s sole interest in Lake Tahoe would be the casinos.
William’s abrupt departure startled Mrs. Bennet, who leaned out the door, calling after him, “Goodbye, William. Have Lizzy bring you for a visit some time soon. Maybe at Christmas when Lydia’s home.”
That’s just what I need.
William arrived at the gate a few minutes behind schedule, but ahead of Charles’s flight—according to the monitors, it was expected to arrive half an hour late. He found a seat in a sparsely occupied section of the waiting area and pulled his current book, a biography of Hirohito, from his briefcase.
He was soon immersed in an account of the political situation in Japan in the pre-war years, so much so that he didn’t notice a pair of long legs wearing spike heels enter his field of vision until they stopped directly in front of him. He glanced up and found the rest of Caroline Bingley attached.
“William, dear. It’s been ages.”
It had been, much to his relief. Aside from an initial barrage of phone calls which he had ignored, he hadn’t heard from her during his time in San Francisco. He set his book on an empty chair and rose to his feet with some trepidation. “Hello, Caroline. I didn’t know you were meeting Charles’s flight.” If she proved true to form, he would soon be fending off a suffocating embrace.
“I’m just getting back from a short business trip, and I thought I’d meet up with the two of you.” She leaned forward to kiss his cheek, but attempted no other intimacies. “It’s good to see you,” she said with a friendly smile that might even have been genuine.
William was prepared to handle Caroline in full manipulative mode, but this low-key version baffled him. They seated themselves and he struggled to find a safe topic of conversation. “I understand you’ve been spending most of your time in LA recently.”
“Yes. Daddy hasn’t been well, so I’ve been back and forth between here and LA, helping out at headquarters. I would have stayed in touch, but apparently you switched cell phone companies and I don’t have your new number.”
Thank God. “I rarely give it out. It’s just for my family, my secretary, and a few close friends.”
“I asked Charles for the number, but he wouldn’t give it to me.”
And again I say, thank God. “I’m sure you can understand that Charles—”
“I know. He’s a close friend of yours. I suppose Elizabeth Bennet has the number, too.” Her patrician voice was flavored with a drop or two of venom.
“Yes, she does.” William clenched his jaw.
“Oh, don’t grind your teeth, darling. I know you two are an item. I heard all about it from Charles.” She fiddled with a large ruby ring on her left hand. “I hope you’re happy together.”
Caroline made a show of scanning the boarding area. “Where is she?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, surely she came to the airport with you to see you off on your trip.”
“She’s not traveling, so she wouldn’t be allowed back here in the gate area.”
“Ah, so she came to the airport with you and said goodbye out at the curb.”
William inspected the buttons on the sleeve of his jacket, avoiding her sharp-eyed stare. “She had a rehearsal this morning.”
“And that mattered more than saying goodbye to you.” After a pause during which her matter-of-fact remark seemed to hover over their heads, she opened her purse and pulled out her cell phone. “Excuse me. I need to make a quick call.”
William wanted to rebut Caroline’s implied criticism of Elizabeth, but she had stumbled onto a small abrasion on William’s heart. He had hoped that Elizabeth would accompany him as far as the airport terminal this morning, prioritizing him—just this once—over the endless rehearsals for the musical.
Caroline spoke into the phone, her voice smothered in syrup. “Darling! I’m so glad I caught you …. Oh, you’re so sweet to say that. I was just thinking about you …. Yes, next weekend. I can’t wait.”
William opened his book and tried to ignore the cloying banter assaulting his ears, though her performance seemed to be largely for his benefit. At last she said goodbye and dropped the phone into her purse, wearing a smile of feline satisfaction. “What a wonderful man,” she murmured softly. “I suppose you overheard.”
“It was difficult to avoid overhearing, but I suppose you intended it that way.”
“A fine accusation to make, when I’m so happy,” Caroline said, pouting. “Darling, I couldn’t wait forever for you, and there are plenty of attractive, single sharks in the tank. Bruce is handsome, charming, and very sexy.”
“And wealthy, I’m sure.”
She raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “What’s wrong with that? We don’t all choose to consort with those who are beneath us.”
William glared at her. “If you’re referring to Elizabeth, she isn’t beneath me.”
“Then how odd that you would have immediately thought of her. Although I can understand why.”
“Caroline, I won’t have you saying malicious things about her.”
“Now, now, don’t get so upset,” she replied in an unctuous tone, patting his arm. “I’m sure she’s a lovely girl, once you get past her rather … combative exterior. And it’s not her fault she has such an atrocious family.”
With impressive precision, Caroline had touched another nerve. William couldn’t think of anything to say, so he simply stared down the concourse, pretending to study the sea of anonymous faces streaming toward him.
“Seriously, darling, I’m sure this has been a lovely vacation from reality, and I’m sure Elizabeth has seen to your various needs, shall we say, quite satisfactorily. But I know you’re too sensible to deceive yourself into believing that it means anything more.”
“You don’t know anything about my relationship with Elizabeth.”
“But I know you. You’re devoted to your family and to preserving its legacy. And I know your grandmother wants more for you than a common schoolteacher with a dreadful mother and a gaggle of equally dreadful sisters. Jane is a dear, but the others—” Caroline shuddered.
William rose to his feet. “I’m not discussing this with you. Excuse me. I’m going to sit over there until Charles arrives.”
Caroline jumped up and grabbed his arm. “Why are you being so defensive? You know I’m right. You gave Charles the same advice last May. Your grandmother would be just as disgusted by the Bennets as my father was, and you can’t keep her from meeting them forever.”
“My grandmother wants me to be happy.” William yanked his arm out of Caroline’s grasp. “And this is none of your concern.”
“I know you don’t have romantic feelings for me. You made that abundantly clear at Rosings last August. And even if you did, I have Bruce in my life now. But you’re still my friend, and friends want the best for each other. So let’s sit down and talk some more.”
William picked up his briefcase, preparing to move to another section of the waiting area, when he noticed an airline agent unlocking the door at Charles’s gate. He strode in that direction instead, the clacking noise behind him announcing that Caroline was following as fast as her heels would permit. He stationed himself near the doorway, and soon she pulled up alongside him, one hand pressed to her recently enlarged bosom as she tried to catch her breath.
“Let’s not fight about this, darling.”
“I told you not to call me ‘darling,’” he snapped.
“I’m sorry. It’s a habit, but I’ll try to break it. How about ‘dear’?”
“How about ‘William’?”
“What does Elizabeth call you?”
“What possible business is that of yours?”
William’s cold stare and haughty tone might have warned off a lesser opponent, but Caroline wasn’t easily intimidated. “I just wondered if she had an adorable little pet name for you.”
He considered ignoring the question, but he hoped that a direct answer might put an end to this ridiculous conversation. “She calls me William.”
“I see.” Caroline’s ruby red lips twitched, and he saw a flash of something reptilian behind her eyes. “Then William it is.” She rested her hand on his arm, her smile sweet. “Please don’t be angry with me for my honesty. I want you to be happy, and I’m afraid you’re setting yourself up for misery. I could scarcely call myself your friend if I didn’t try to save you from that.”
William’s only response was a glacial stare. He was saved from further unwelcome advice when Charles breezed through the doorway followed by other passengers from the flight. He smiled at William, his teeth flashing against his surfer’s tan.
“Will! It’s good to see you.” Charles embraced William, who clapped him on the back with only a twinge of embarrassment.
Charles turned to Caroline next, their embrace more dutiful than affectionate. “I didn’t know you were coming to meet me,” he said. “It was nice of you, but you didn’t have to go to the trouble.”
“Oh, but don’t you find that it’s pleasant when people meet you at the airport, and when they take the extra trouble to see you off on a trip?”
William knew this barb was aimed at him, but he ignored her and spoke to Charles. “Let’s find a place to get some coffee, preferably somewhere near my gate.”
“Unless you need something stronger by now,” Charles said quietly, tipping his head in Caroline’s direction. “I’m sure the delay seemed longer to you than it did to me.”
William snickered as he led the way down the concourse.