Elizabeth yawned and rubbed her eyes. She wasn’t sure what had awakened her, but the sound of loud voices in the hallway offered a clue. William’s side of the bed was empty, his comforting warmth absent.
He stood by the window, his back to her. The interplay of illumination and shadow painted his body in tones from white to deep gray, highlighting his slender hipbone and resting on his shoulders like a pale mantel, yet leaving his back shrouded in dusky velvet. Akin to her earlier suggestion, he might have been hewn from marble, smooth and still and coolly remote.
She threw back the covers and slipped into the discarded robe at the foot of the bed. When she reached his side, he offered her a wan smile. “I think you’re going to get your wish,” he said softly.
“You mean my walk in the snow? It sure looks that way.” A riot of snowflakes fluttered past the window, and the ground below appeared, from this height at least, to be covered in white.
He nodded. “It’s been coming down hard for a while.”
“How long have you been standing here?”
“An ambulance woke me. On the way back from the bathroom I came over to take a look at the snow. I’ve been watching it ever since.” His voice sounded distant, almost dreamlike.
She reached for his hand, which rested against the window frame. “You’re cold.” She chafed his fingers. They were as chilly as the marble to which she had compared him.
He drew her against him. His chest felt warmer than his hand, but not by much. “Warm me up,” he whispered, dipping his head. His lips were cool, too, but this was no kiss from a statue. His mouth brushed against hers repeatedly, gently but with a hint of desire held carefully in check.
They stood wrapped together, staring out at the wintry landscape. “Come back to bed,” she said. “I can warm you up much better there.” She took his hand and led him across the room. Once they were nestled together under the thick comforter, she drew his head to rest on her shoulder and stroked his hair.
He sighed and nuzzled her neck. “I’m feeling warmer already.”
“I bet your feet are freezing. I’d do something about it, but I can’t reach them.”
With a soft chuckle, he bent his knees, bringing his feet into range. She wrapped her own feet around them and gasped. “Good grief! Were you standing on a block of ice?”
“Feeling like you hopped in bed with a polar bear?”
“I can’t say I’ve ever thought of you as a polar bear. A big, cuddly teddy bear, maybe.”
He raised his head and eyed her, frowning. “As in, hairy with a pot belly?”
Her hand slid down to pat his flat abdomen. “Hardly.” She grinned. “I take it your teddy bear did a lot of snacking between meals?”
“It wasn’t a teddy bear. A stuffed dog.”
“What was his name?”
“Aww, that’s so cute.”
“It’s Italian, a nickname for Giuseppe.”
“I bet you and Beppe were adorable all cuddled up together at night. Do you still have him?”
He wrapped himself around her, his head heavy against her shoulder. “My mother kept him for years, but he must be long gone by now.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “At lunch tomorrow, I’m going to have to ask your grandmother to tell me ‘little William’ stories.”
“I knew it was a bad idea to get you two together,” he groaned. “Though she might be reluctant to share family stories outside the family, even with my girlfriend.”
“Then I’d better wait until—” She snapped her mouth shut half a second before she blundered into a minefield.
He lifted his head, and although she couldn’t see the expression in his eyes, she could almost hear his brain sliding letter tiles into their places, filling in the missing words.
“Anyway,” she said, anxious to change the subject, “tell me what had you standing at the window brooding while you turned into an ice sculpture.”
“Nothing in particular. Just … thoughts spinning in my head.”
He frowned and pressed his lips together, but didn’t speak.
She decided he needed a nudge. “Maybe if you tell me, you’ll be able to relax and get back to sleep.”
At first he was silent, and she thought she might have to prod him again. But then he spoke in a halting voice. “I was thinking about the future. Our future.”
“I’ve been thinking about it too.”
He rolled onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow. “Lizzy, if you’re letting the things Gran said—about my parents, I mean—bother you, please don’t. It has nothing to do with us.”
“Then you don’t think I’m like your mother?”
He hesitated before answering, but when he spoke his voice was firm. “In some ways, I guess you are, but you’re different, too. Besides, I’d never treat you the way my father treated her. And my life is very different from his.”
The light from outside, filtered through thousands of snowflakes, wasn’t enough. For this conversation, she needed to be able to read every nuance of his expression. She sat up and turned on the bedside lamp, squinting into the sudden brightness. “How do you envision things working once I move back here?”
“Well ….” He paused and shifted into a sitting position, moving slowly. It was another of his characteristic delaying tactics, giving him a chance to select his words with care. “Everything is based on one rather large assumption.”
“That you’ll eventually marry me.” A muscle twitched beside his eye. Her astonishment at his blunt statement—or was it a proposal?—must have shown on her face, because he rushed ahead, the words tumbling out in sharp contrast to his usual measured speech. “I’m not trying to pressure you into anything. We just got back together and we need time to rebuild trust. But after that ….” The stream of words ran dry, and he fell silent.
His intense stare seemed to pin her against the pillows. Under this laser-like scrutiny, she doubted she could have framed any words but the ones he wanted to hear. Fortunately, they were also the ones she wanted to say. “I’ve been making the same assumption.”
His sweet, boyish smile would have weakened her knees had she been standing. She kissed his cheek, its location so convenient to his warm, smiling lips, lips that welcomed her with unmistakable enthusiasm.
But kissing would have to wait; there were complicated matters to deal with. She cast about for an indirect opening. “Your grandmother knew that you had proposed. I was surprised you told her.”
“I didn’t intend to; it slipped out. She was trying to stop me from going to Barbados. She said some things about you, based on lies and half-truths from Catherine, that made me angry. I told her that if you were after my money you wouldn’t have refused my proposal.”
She sighed. “We’ve discussed lots of things, but when it comes to the proposal, we’ve only talked about what you said, not my refusal.”
“I don’t like thinking about it. When you returned the ring ….” He paused and licked his lips.
“I know. That’s why I haven’t brought it up.” She ran her finger along his stubbly jaw. “The look in your eyes broke my heart.”
“You can’t imagine how many nights I lay awake, hearing you say over and over that you didn’t trust me anymore.”
She grasped both his hands. “Please, let’s not talk about what we said then. We’re not the same people.”
“Maybe not. But I want the same things.”
“To spend the rest of my life with you. To travel with you, at least sometimes. To see our children grow up with parents who love each other.”
She hadn’t been prepared for such a heartfelt declaration. Something, perhaps the doubts that still lingered, shivered up her spine. “William ….”
“I meant what I said. No pressure. This isn’t a formal proposal.” He stroked her cheek with his thumb. “I’ve learned the hard way that things work better when you set the pace. And I don’t think you’re quite ready.”
Was she? Probably not, considering the gargantuan butterflies lumbering around in her stomach. “Your grandmother doesn’t think I’m cut out to be a Darcy wife.”
“She’s wrong, and she’ll see that eventually.”
Elizabeth wished she felt as confident as William sounded. “She seemed pretty sure of herself.”
“She’s living in the past. When my grandfather was alive, she was one of the premiere hostesses in New York. I’m sure her skill in that area enhanced the family’s image. But these days we live quietly. Nobody’s going to expect you to give up everything you care about and devote your life to entertaining.”
“She might expect that. Maybe she wants to resurrect the past.”
“I doubt it. And even if she did, why would I, of all people, want to turn my house into Party Central?”
She had been too busy worrying about his grandmother to consider that angle. “That’s true. It doesn’t seem like your style.”
“Of course not. I’m happier staying home with a good book. Or taking a bubble bath by candlelight.” He raised his eyebrows. “We’ll have to try that again some time. My bathtub at the townhouse is bigger, so we’d be much more comfortable.”
“I remember.” She smiled. “When I saw it, I imagined myself relaxing among the bubbles with a glass of champagne in my hand.”
“Alone, or with company?”
“I’ll never tell. But you’re definitely invited.”
He chuckled. “With that sort of incentive to stay home, you’ll never get me out of the house.” Then he took her hand. “Seriously, there are some parties and events we’d be expected to attend, and once in a while we’d need to entertain. And you’d probably be invited to join the Opera Guild and so on. But it’s not an everyday thing. You might even enjoy it; after all, you like meeting new people and going to parties.”
“My idea of a party isn’t exactly a black tie affair.” Dread trembled up her spine at the vision of herself making small talk with condescending socialites on a nightly basis. But once in a while it might be, if not fun, at least interesting. “But I can handle it.”
“You’ll fit in much better than I do.” He hesitated and glanced down at their clasped hands. “Sometimes I worry that I’m too dull for you.”
She stroked his jaw. “Of course not. I thought our time together in San Francisco was perfect. We spent time with friends, and we went out and did things, but we also spent quiet time at home, just the two of us. And not that we went to tons of parties, but you usually seemed to enjoy them.”
“It’s different when I’m with you. I don’t feel so disconnected from other people.”
“I’m glad.” She sometimes wondered if she loved him in part because he needed her and didn’t mind admitting it. “Okay, so we’ll face the social whirl together. We’ll make a great team: you can make sure I don’t commit any major faux pas, and I’ll help you talk to people. Next question. Are you going to have a problem if I continue teaching?”
“Of course not.”
“Will your grandmother be able to show her face in society if she has a granddaughter-in-law with a paying job?”
He raised an imperious eyebrow. “I have a paying job.”
“Yeah, one with oodles of prestige, earning you money you don’t need. Much as I like teaching, it’s a pretty ordinary job compared to what you do. And what if I wanted to go back to musical theater someday, or to sing with a band or in a cabaret?”
“Do whatever makes you happy, as long as we’re together.”
“You say that now, but a minute ago you said you wanted me to travel with you.”
“You mentioned it when you proposed, too. You wanted me to quit teaching so I could go with you on your trips.” She fixed a pointed stare on him. “That’s basically the same thing your father asked your mother to do, to give up her career for the sake of his. Plus, she’d already left Italy and her family to go to New York, just like I’m going to leave California and my family.”
“Except my father didn’t ask. He demanded.” William sighed. “I know you’re going to miss your family when you move back here. It means a lot that you’re willing to do that for me.”
“I know Georgie and your grandmother need you.”
“As for the job, I know you can’t travel with me much if you’re teaching. I understand that. But, back to our ideal scenarios, I wish that you could.”
“The demands of our jobs don’t match up too well. What do we do about it?”
In the silence that followed, she became aware that the city was unnaturally peaceful, as though it slept beneath its blanket of white.
“I don’t know,” he said at last, with a forlorn little shrug.
“I could travel with you during the summer. That’s a start.”
“But summer is my quietest season, and I’d still be traveling alone nine months of the year.” He sighed and drew her closer, his arms closing around her. “I’d hate for us to be apart that much.”
“So would I.” She sighed. “I don’t suppose you can cut back on your travel?”
“Eventually, yes, but not any time soon. My schedule books up years in advance. And I’m going to be even busier because we rescheduled the dates I had to cancel this summer and fall.”
“Then I don’t know the answer. But if we’re willing to be flexible, we’ll come up with something.”
He tipped her chin up and kissed her. “‘Flexible.’ That’s my new middle name, instead of ‘Patience.’”
“William F. Darcy, huh?”
“At your service, ma’am.”
Their next kiss started as a teasing caress, but passion bloomed rapidly, leaving her gripping his shoulders. He tumbled her onto her back and loomed over her. “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
She looped her arms around his neck. “If you’ve learned the word ‘flexible,’ that’s a pretty good indication.” She nibbled his ear lobe and whispered, “Though sometimes I like it when you’re … rigid.”
Laughing, he lowered his body into intimate contact with hers. Her senses came sizzling to life. “Your wish is my command,” he said.