They had spread their blanket near the tree line, taking advantage of the gathering shade. Elizabeth leaned back against William’s chest, her head resting on his shoulder, his arms encircling her from behind. They had said little since finishing their impromptu snack, but it was a comfortable silence. He was content to gaze at the turbulent ocean while he savored the silent communion flowing between them.
She raised her wine glass, swallowing the final sip.
“More wine?” he asked, struggling to reach for the bottle but hampered by Elizabeth’s recumbent position against him.
“That’s okay; I’ll get it,” she said. “Want some?”
“I’d better not.” He felt pleasantly lethargic; more wine might put him to sleep.
She refilled her glass and then snuggled back against him with a blissful sigh. “This is pure heaven. Why isn’t there someone who’s willing to pay me a nice salary just to sit on the beach with you?”
“There is, but I’d gotten the impression that you didn’t want me supporting you.”
“Oops.” She peeked over her shoulder at him. “I’ve said that kind of thing dozens of times before, but never to someone who could actually do it. I guess it falls into the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ category.”
He kissed the top of her head, grinning.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said slowly. “About last night.”
“This sounds bad.”
“It’s not, not really.” She pulled out of his embrace and knelt beside him on the blanket. “You asked last night if you had behaved like—like Michael. And I said no. But I admit, you scared me a little. You were in a hurry, and you were kind of rough.”
He seized her hand. “I hurt you. I knew it. That’s the last thing I ever wanted to—”
She pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him. “You didn’t hurt me. But I do associate that sort of behavior with him. And I did start to flash back to that night.”
Swamped with remorse, he clumsily gathered her into his arms. “I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again, I promise.”
“But the thing is, I focused on you, and how different you are from him, and how I know you’d never hurt me. Before long I wasn’t afraid anymore, and then I didn’t want you to stop.”
“You mean you’ve learned a way to beat the flashbacks?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But Diane, the counselor, taught me a few techniques I can try. And they worked—this time, anyway.”
“Thank God.” He pressed her head to his chest. “Because I’d promise never to touch you again rather than risk causing you that kind of pain.”
“That’s the last thing I want.” She glanced up, her eyes gleaming. “And don’t start handling me with kid gloves. It’s not necessary. I’m only bringing it up because we promised to tell each other things, and I didn’t quite tell you the whole story last night.”
He was sure she was minimizing her discomfort for his sake. He would have to be more careful in the future. “Are you still seeing the counselor?”
She nodded. “In fact, she’s probably the single biggest reason I finally called you.”
“I’d gotten your letter and I wanted to call, but I couldn’t let you, or anyone else for that matter, control my life.”
“Lizzy, you’re the most independent woman I’ve ever known. I don’t think the man has been born who could control you.”
“He did, that night.”
William winced and his eyes dropped to the blanket. He ran a finger along the diamond pattern in the weave, trying to distract himself from feeling like an insensitive jackass.
“I swore I’d never let a man take control away from me again. It’s ironic, because Diane helped me to see that every time I pushed a man away, supposedly to protect myself, I was actually handing control of my life over to Michael—the version of him that lives in my head—and allowing him to go on hurting me. Especially where you were concerned.”
Curiosity overcame his self-recrimination. His eyes flew to her face, but he waited in silence for an explanation.
“We had some big things to work out,” she continued. “And even though you apologized in your letter, it didn’t sound like you understood everything.”
This was still a sore point for him. “We talked about this last night. How was I supposed to understand when you wouldn’t talk to me?”
“I know,” she said, stroking his arm. “I’m just explaining my thought processes at the time. Like I told you last night, I was afraid we’d get back together and nothing would be different. And sooner or later I’d either have to say a permanent goodbye, or else I’d lose myself.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Diane helped me to see that I was holding you to an impossible standard. You were supposed to read my mind and intuitively understand everything you did wrong. And meanwhile, I had pushed away a man who loved me, and who would probably do just about anything for me if I asked.”
“Which, as anyone thinking rationally would have realized, meant that you’d probably be willing to work with me to fix things, if I would just explain what I wanted.”
“Right. Except that rationality hasn’t been my strong suit for the past couple of weeks.” She touched his cheek. “I know I caused you a lot of pain, and I’m truly sorry.”
“You’re completely forgiven.” He bent his head for a kiss. It wasn’t quite the truth. It still hurt that she hadn’t loved and trusted him enough to talk to him sooner. But he supposed it was the same for her. His transgressions had inflicted wounds too deep to vanish overnight. At least now they could heal together.
She leaned back against him, burrowing into his chest like a contented feline, and they fell silent again. The shadows deepened as the rays of the late afternoon sun slanted across the beach. William watched a surfer rise up on a wave. “What’s happening with Jane and Charles?” he asked.
“Oh, gosh, I meant to tell you earlier. She said they had a wonderful time in Carmel.”
“Did they play Pebble Beach?” The famous golf course overlooked the ocean about an hour south of San Francisco, not far from the charming seaside town of Carmel.
“They tried, but they couldn’t get a tee time. They’re back in the city now and they’re going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.”
William suppressed a shudder. Poor Charles, spending the day listening to Mrs. Bennet’s nonsensical babble. But he limited his response to a small, non-committal grunt.
“Speaking of Thanksgiving,” she said, “we need to talk about the rest of this week.”
“Good idea. Would you like to invite the Gardiners here on Thursday? The meal may not have all the traditional trimmings, but I know Mrs. Shepherd will do her best.”
“I think you should eat your turkey in New York.”
“No, it’ll taste much better here.” He tightened his arms around her.
“Won’t your grandmother be furious?”
“She’ll forgive me eventually, and right now I need to be with you.”
“But isn’t your grandmother going to blame me if you don’t show up? And that could just make things worse in the long run.”
“Lizzy, we deserve some time alone together.”
She wriggled out of his arms and turned to face him. “Maybe there’s a morning flight on Thanksgiving Day. That would still give us the rest of today and all day tomorrow.”
“That’s not long enough.”
“You should at least think about it.”
He nodded glumly, his eyes tracking a cruise ship on the horizon. She was right and he knew it, despite his best efforts at denial. Gran would hold Elizabeth responsible for his absence, and Georgiana deserved consideration, too. Emotionally depleted from exhaustion and heartache, he had barely said hello to her on his arrival from Australia, and he had left for Barbados the next morning while she slept. “If I decide to go, will you come with me?”
“Of course. You didn’t think I’d let you leave here without me, did you?”
He grabbed her and tumbled her back onto the blanket. “I love you,” he murmured, leaning over her.
“Right back at you.” She flung her arms around his neck. “And now, why don’t you kiss me?”
William was happy to oblige.
The citronella candles didn’t completely ward off the insects darting about the garden, but dinner in the gazebo was a success all the same. William’s thoughts echoed Elizabeth’s earlier remark about the Garden of Eden. Despite their closeness to the house, the exotic foliage surrounding the gazebo wrapped them in cozy seclusion, and the tree frogs provided music fitting to the atmosphere.
When Mrs. Shepherd came out to clear their dinner dishes and deliver two helpings of piña colada cheesecake, she announced her departure for the night. William bid her an enthusiastic farewell, wondering how the kindly woman had managed to read his mind.
Elizabeth popped a bite of cheesecake into her mouth, a blissful expression on her face. She glowed in the candlelight, warm highlights glimmering in her hair as it floated around her bare shoulders, ruffled gently by the balmy night air.
“I don’t even want to think about how many calories I just consumed,” she declared, setting her fork on her empty dessert plate.
William nodded. “Mrs. Shepherd’s food is not for the nutritionally faint of heart.”
“Oh, like you have to worry. She’s probably trying to fatten you up.”
“But I try to watch what I eat for the sake of my heart.”
Elizabeth grimaced and rolled her eyes. “I am too stupid to walk the earth. I can’t believe I forgot about that.”
“I’m glad you forgot. I don’t want you dwelling on my health.”
“But you need to take care of yourself, especially since your busy schedule probably starts up soon.”
“Not until January. With all the productions of Messiah and Nutcracker and the Christmas pops concerts, December is a slow month for me. When will you be done at the conservatory?”
“My grades are due on the 21st but I can have them done before that.”
He hesitated, choosing his words with care. “This is a change of subject, but I’ve been wanting to ask. Are you still willing to consider moving to New York?”
She must have sensed his anxiety, because she scooted her chair closer to his and grasped his hand. “Yes. I’ll miss San Francisco. But now that Charles is back, Jane will be fine without me—in fact, much as I love living with her, I think I’m in the way right now. And you and I need to be together more than just once in a while.”
He nodded. “I was thinking about whether or not I could stay in California, like in your perfect scenario. Someday I think I’d like to do that; I’ve enjoyed my time out there, and I know you’d rather live there.”
“But right now Georgie and your grandmother need you.”
He sighed. “Mostly Georgie. I think it would be hard on her if I moved away right now.”
“I understand. And it’s okay. I like New York, and I have lots of friends there.”
He reached for her, ready to embrace her, but she raised a warning hand. “There’s just one thing. Once I decided to leave the conservatory I needed a job starting in January.”
“You’ll find something in New York. With all the universities there—”
“So I started job hunting right away, and I wasn’t thinking about New York. I wasn’t sure if you and I even had a future.”
“But now things are different.” He speared the last bite of cheesecake on his fork.
“But, you see, almost as soon as I started thinking about a new job, Jim Pennington heard about an opening from one of his friends. A job at a private school.”
William’s fork froze halfway to his mouth. “Wait a minute. Are you saying you took another job out there?”
She winced and nodded. “Just temporarily, as a substitute for a teacher going on maternity leave.”
“Late February, though they said there might be an opportunity to stay on permanently.”
“Don’t worry.” She rested her hand on his arm. “I’ll tell them I’m not interested in anything long-term, and I’ll move to New York as soon as the regular teacher comes back. I can look for a teaching job for the fall in New York; I’m not likely to find anything in the middle of the semester. In the meantime, I can probably get my old restaurant job back.”
That was certainly not going to happen. He refused to stand by and watch his woman waiting on people and lugging heavy trays of food. Furthermore, he could hear the snide tone of the inevitable item in the New York Post’s gossip column: “From the Now We’ve Seen It All Department: Yet another reason to dine in the Village. Your server may be none other than the ladylove of one of New York’s most eligible bachelors. Why is he making her sing for her supper when he could afford to buy the restaurant?”
He opened his mouth to rebuff her ghastly suggestion. But then it dawned on him that his own actions, in interfering in her career, had been instrumental in reducing her to this fate. “You think it’ll come to that?” he asked, as gently as he could.
She shrugged. “I don’t mind restaurant work; I did it for years. But you’re going to hate having me wait on tables, aren’t you?”
He thought it best not to answer. “Maybe something else will turn up.” Or maybe she would decide to travel with him … but he refrained from mentioning the possibility. “Shall we go back to the house now?”
“Could we wander through the garden first?”
“Of course.” He pushed back his chair and rose, intending to help her to her feet, but she was already standing, smoothing her dress. She tucked her arm into the crook of his elbow and they strolled in the direction of the lily pond. Small lights nestled into the ground illuminated the path, the interplay of light and shadow transforming the garden into a secret haven for lovers.
“This is the most romantic place I’ve ever seen,” she breathed.
He sighed. “I wish we could stay here by ourselves for the next 50 years or so.”
They had reached the pond, an expanse of blackness adorned by flickers of reflected light. She stopped walking and turned to face him, her hands sliding along his arms toward his shoulders. “Are you afraid we’ll have problems once we’re back in the real world?”
“I just got you back, and I don’t want to risk losing you again.”
“I think if we keep the promises we made last night, we’re going to be fine.”
Her arms went around his neck, her fingers stroking the nape. The light touch traveled to every nerve ending in his body. He felt the gentle pressure of her hands against his neck and responded immediately, dipping his head to kiss her. “Mmm, you taste good,” he murmured against her mouth, wrapping her in his arms.
“What would you like to do this evening?” she asked.
William had considered several scenarios. “I have only one condition. Whatever we do, it must involve as little clothing as possible.”
“Well, it’s a warm evening. Why don’t we go for a swim?”
He raised an eyebrow. The images summoned by her suggestion stole his breath, though one key point needed clarification. “I like that idea, as long as you understand that my ‘little clothing’ rule won’t allow bathing suits.”
“You were thinking of birthday suits instead?” She might have blushed, but in the near-darkness he couldn’t be sure.
“Precisely.” He tipped his head and gave her a crooked grin he hoped was seductive.
After a pause, she said, “I have to admit, I’ve always wanted to try skinny-dipping.”
“Excellent. Let’s go.” He took her hand and strode down the path leading out of the garden.
“Well, cheese-on-bread, you’re in a hurry!”
He chuckled, both at her use of the peculiar Bajan slang expression and at her surprise, but didn’t break his brisk stride. “You just offered me a chance to see you naked and wet. If that doesn’t warrant swift action, I don’t know what does.”