Afterwards, they lay nestled together for what little remained of the night. Elizabeth traced lazy designs across William’s chest, savoring its solid warmth beneath her hands. He told her more about Georgiana and about his resolution, at the age of fifteen, to do the impossible: to replace both the mother his sister had lost and the father who was little more than a figurehead.
“Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Robert offered to raise Georgie, but Gran wanted her to stay at the townhouse. I think Gran was afraid they’d go back to San Francisco and take her with them. And of course, as long as Father was alive, he would have objected to that as well.”
“But your father was barely around.”
“Officially, he lived at the townhouse, so his children were supposed to live there.”
“You almost never talk about him.”
He sighed. “Someday I’ll tell you more if you want, but right now I just want to hold you.” He tightened his arms around her and closed his eyes.
Soon—entirely too soon—the radio on her alarm clock switched on, playing a tinny version of “Lady Marmalade.” She grimaced and hit the “off” button, a huge yawn welling up in her throat.
“Time to get up.” But despite her words, she snuggled against him, dreading the thought of saying goodbye again so soon. She had long imagined him sharing her bed, but now that she had seen him lounging beneath the covers, smelled his scent on her pillow, and felt his comforting warmth beside her in the dark, the bed would be haunted by his ghost and empty without him.
“Just a few more minutes,” he mumbled, kissing her neck.
“Or a few more weeks.” But she forced herself wider awake and pulled out of his arms. “No, we have to get up. Isn’t the limo due at four thirty?”
“Mmm.” He nuzzled her shoulder, humming softly.
She reluctantly pushed him away and yanked off the covers.
“Hey!” He curled into the fetal position—or as close to it as a man of his size could manage—in reaction to the chilly air. “You’re a cruel woman.”
“Yes, I am. But you’ll have a fit if you miss your flight.”
“I do not have fits,” he declared in a regal tone, but he sat up and swept his hands through his hair.
She turned on the bedside lamp and squinted at the light assaulting her eyes. “Go start the shower,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I thought you wanted to make sure we were ready in time for the limo.”
“Well, yeah. And it’ll be faster if we share the shower instead of taking turns.”
“If we do that, I can’t vouch for my self-control.” He leaned across the bed and kissed her hard. “And then we’ll definitely be late.”
A tempting thought indeed, but Elizabeth restrained herself from following him into the bathroom. They showered—separately—and dressed at lightning speed, managing to arrive downstairs just as a gleaming black Town Car rolled up in front of the building. Soon they were speeding down Highway 101 toward the airport.
She gasped and raised her head from his shoulder. “I completely forgot to tell you! Jane and Charles got engaged yesterday.”
He nodded, wearing a self-satisfied smile. “Charles told me he was going to propose. I told him I thought it was a good idea.”
“In other words, you gave him permission.”
He lifted his chin. “I did no such thing. I encouraged him, that’s all.”
“Call it what you like, he had your approval.” She snickered. “Anyway, they want us to be the best man and maid of honor again. They’re talking about picking a weekend in January.”
“I’m happy for them.” But his voice was remote now, and his eyes seemed trained on something far in the distance.
“Incidentally, I’m going to look for someplace else to live after the holidays. It’s been a little awkward already, and now that they’re engaged again, I don’t want to be underfoot.”
“But they’ll be living in the house.”
“Don’t you remember? Charles has a buyer. He won’t have the house for much longer.”
William cleared his throat and straightened up. “Lizzy, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Uh oh. Nobody ever introduces good news that way.”
“I hope you’ll think this is good news. I’m buying Charles’s house.”
“You’re doing what?”
“I’m the mysterious buyer. The one whose name he doesn’t know.” He paused and turned to face her. “Last May, I caused them a lot of pain with my interference. So when Charles told me he was selling the house, and talked about how much the place meant to them, I thought I could at least save them the pain of losing it by giving it to them. I guess you could call it an effort at atonement.”
She stared at him, incredulous. “Oh, no! Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Why would I joke about it?”
“I know you meant well, Will.” She rubbed her eyes, struggling to find the words. “But it’s like what you did with my job. It’s too much. Remember, I told you then, you can offer to do something like this, but you have to let the recipient decide.”
“But I did them a lot of harm, and I can afford this. I want to make things right.”
“They can’t possibly accept such a large gift, but think how awkward it’s going to be for them to turn it down. You’ve put them in a very uncomfortable situation.”
“Then it can be a long-term loan. They can pay me back if they ever decide to sell.”
“And you’d take their money?” She knew him better than that.
He shrugged. “There could be other strings attached.”
“We could ask for a guaranteed guest room whenever we want to visit, so you can see the cherry blossoms in the Japanese Tea Garden, or visit your family, or come out here for any other reason that would make you happy.”
“And Jane and Charles would be like caretakers?”
“Of our guest room, yes. The rest of the house would be theirs.”
“I’m sure they’ll say no. But I guess you’ll have to ask them. And I mean ask, as in, make it clear that they have a choice. And if they say no, you have to rescind your offer on the house.”
“I was hoping you’d do that for me.”
Elizabeth made loud clucking noises.
He arched an eyebrow. “Just what are you implying?”
“Oh, I think you know.”
“I am not chicken. I planned to talk to them at lunch today. But it might be easier for them to accept the gift if the offer comes from you.”
She captured his face between her hands and kissed him.
“What was that for?” he asked in a husky voice. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Because you’re the sweetest, most generous man in the world, even though you’re too way quick to throw money at other people’s problems. All right, I’ll talk to them. But I don’t see any way that they’ll accept, no matter what I say. And I’m sure Charles is going to be mad at you. You really should have talked to him first.”
The limo exited the highway and turned onto the airport service road. “Already?” he said, glancing out the window. “I wish you could come with me.”
“Me, too.” She reached up to smooth his hair, still damp from his shower and smelling faintly of shampoo. “But I’ll be there before you know it.”
They kissed again, but she drew back as a disturbing thought flew into her mind. “Unless it would cause problems. I mean, with Georgie’s situation, she and your grandmother aren’t going to want an outsider in the house.”
“Lizzy, you’re coming to New York for the holidays. Don’t even suggest staying in California.”
“But maybe I should call Sally and see if—”
He pressed his fingers to her lips. “No,” he said, as the limo drew up to the curb. “You’re a part of my life. No one is going to treat you like an outsider.”
The limo lurched slightly as the driver pulled William’s suitcase from the trunk. They exited the limo and stood staring awkwardly at each other for a moment. Then William glanced at the driver. “Ms. Bennet will be with you in a moment.” The driver nodded and stepped away, waiting at a discreet distance.
Elizabeth couldn’t say goodbye, not yet. She grasped at the first idea that flitted through her mind. “I’ll stand in the security line with you. It’ll give us a few more minutes.”
“I don’t want to say goodbye to you there, in a crowd of disgruntled people.” He rested his hands on her shoulders and drew her closer. “Lizzy, how am I going to deal with all of this without you?” He sighed, his shoulders slumping.
“You’ll be fine.” She stroked his cheek, summoning all her self-control to hold back her tears. “We’ll talk on the phone every day, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
He lowered his head, his warm mouth covering hers. With a little sob, she threw her arms around his neck and poured all her love into the kiss.
Afterwards, they held each other in silence, beyond the need for words. A nearby car beeped its horn, recalling her to the present, and she lifted her head from its resting place on his chest. “You’d better go,” she said in a wobbly voice.
He nodded, but kept his arms wrapped securely around her.
“You don’t want to miss your flight.”
“Maybe I do,” he mumbled. He tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear.
She shook her head. “Georgie needs you.”
“And I need you.”
She had to remind herself of her resolution not to cry. “I’ll see you soon. Now, go, before I change my mind.”
He kissed her once more. Then he collected his suitcase and briefcase and walked away.
Elizabeth watched him, blinking back her tears. She knew he would look back before entering the terminal. When he did, she saw him as a stranger might, his handsome features marred by the lines of worry around his eyes. She waved and forced herself to smile. Then he passed through the doors of the terminal, and the first teardrop spilled onto Elizabeth’s cheek.
The driver approached her. “Are you ready to go, ma’am?”
She nodded and slid into the back seat, tears filling her eyes. She fished through her purse for a Kleenex, barely restraining a sob. A wave of guilt twisted her stomach in knots. The guilt was irrational, she knew; she couldn’t just walk out on her obligations. And he wasn’t helpless; he had survived worse than this without her. But her arguments, logical as they were, couldn’t blot out the image of his slumped shoulders and careworn face. She couldn’t go with him, yet she couldn’t let him leave San Francisco alone.
Her heart whispered an answer, one so obvious she almost laughed at her blindness. Acting on pure instinct, she leaned forward to speak to the driver. “Please, stop.”
“What’s wrong, Ms. Bennet?”
“We need to go back to the terminal.”
“Did Mr. Darcy leave something in the limo?”
Elizabeth sat back in the seat, her hands folded tightly together, her heart pounding with so much force it seemed to shake her body.
William wondered if cattle on a forced march to the slaughterhouse felt this way. Probably not; they didn’t know what fate awaited them when they reached the front of the line. He knew the answer all too well. His reward would be the privilege of sitting on an airplane for hours, breathing stale air and feeling his muscles atrophy.
He glanced at his boarding pass. Seat 14C. A coach seat. The first class section of the flight was full. The noisy family near the front of the line, equipped with a screaming baby and a hyperactive toddler hanging on the rope line, would probably end up in his row … or maybe in the row behind, with the child kicking his seat all the way to New York.
He nudged his briefcase forward with his toe as he shuffled ahead a foot or two, part of a wave of shuffling that trickled gradually toward the rear of the line. The briefcase was crammed with books he’d planned to read during a relaxing stay in California. But his stay was over, the books unread, and he was alone. Again.
Elizabeth would join him in New York at her earliest opportunity, but her obligations would keep her in California for at least a week. And what if she wanted to spend Christmas Eve with her family, as they had planned to do together? He was in no position to ask her to forsake her family in favor of the Darcys’ holiday celebration. Not that there would be much to celebrate this year.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and summoned up an imaginary piano. He was learning another of Jennifer Nguyen’s compositions and needed to memorize the piece, particularly the fingering he had devised. He visualized his hands moving over the keys, but his thoughts soon drifted to Georgiana, and to the guilt that threatened to suffocate him. Elizabeth had done her best to excuse his actions, but he had neglected his sister’s welfare. He had only himself to blame for her misstep.
He shuffled forward again, finally within view of the first security checkpoint where a bored-looking woman inspected passengers’ identification. He reached into his pocket for his wallet.
It couldn’t be. He must have manufactured her voice to assuage the loneliness enveloping him like a thick gray fog. But then he saw her standing next to the rope line. His eyes widened and the fog melted away.
“I need to talk to you!” Every line of her body seemed to vibrate with excitement.
He couldn’t afford to completely leave the security line; it had lengthened since his arrival, and another long wait would cause him to miss his flight. Instead, he inched his way toward the side of the rope line closest to Elizabeth, gaining a new appreciation for the challenges facing salmon fighting their way upstream.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said, dropping his briefcase and leaning across the rope to kiss her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I have a question for you.”
He raised his eyebrows and waited.
“Will you marry me?”
He stared at her, uncomprehending. “What?”
“Do you want me to do this the traditional way? Because I will.” Before his astonished gaze, she got down on one knee, holding his hand in both of hers. “William Darcy, I love you with all my heart, and I can’t live without you. Will you marry me?”
His mouth dropped open, but his brain couldn’t assemble a coherent sentence.
“Please say yes,” she said, a teasing light in her eyes, “or I’m going to feel like such an idiot.”
“Yes.” He mouthed the word, emotion clogging his throat, and helped her to her feet. “Yes.” Heedless of the elastic rope stretching between them, he engulfed her in his arms. “Yes,” he whispered against her hair.
Her face brilliant with joy, Elizabeth drew his head down and planted her mouth firmly on his. Somewhere in the vague recesses of his brain he heard a smattering of applause.
“Was this totally stupid?” she asked, her smile the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. “Asking you here, I mean.”
He shook his head. “Not even a little.”
“But, I mean, you’re about the most privacy-conscious guy on the planet. How idiotic was it to propose to you in a crowded airline terminal? You didn’t even want to say goodbye to me in here, much less this.”
“I’m too happy to care.” He toyed with her ponytail. “Besides, that’s my Lizzy. Seize the moment, full speed ahead.”
She laughed. “Act without thinking, you mean.”
He tightened his arms around her. “I wish I had half your courage. I almost proposed to you yesterday morning.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I was on the verge of asking you, in the tea garden. But then you started talking about not wanting to leave California, and all the uncertainty and doubt.”
“But that was about jobs and places to live. When it comes to us, I don’t have any doubts.”
“Not even after last night?”
The sweetness of her smile nearly stole his breath. “Especially not after last night.”
“I convinced you to marry me by acting like an ass?” He snickered. “If only I’d known it was that simple.”
She pulled away in mock disgust. “Oh, wait. I think I just changed my mind.” She looked so lovely, her eyes gleaming with mischief, that he had to kiss her again.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, the soft glow in her eyes in the aftermath of his kiss gratifying him beyond reason. “Was there ever a point last night when you thought, ‘Maybe we just don’t belong together’?”
“Me neither. I mean, at first I wanted to do you some serious bodily harm.”
“There’s that bloodthirsty streak again. Maybe I’d better change my mind.”
“Too late. You said yes and I’m holding you to it.”
He bent down to whisper in her ear. “You can hold me to anything you want, any time you want.”
She shot a narrow-eyed stare at him, pursing her lips. “Are you going to let me finish? After all, you’re the one with the plane to catch.”
He nodded meekly.
“After the urge to rip you into several dozen pieces passed, I said to myself, ‘Well, here are some things we need to work on.’ And we did. But I never doubted that we would.”
Neither had he. It made his hesitation to propose the day before all the more ridiculous. What had he been afraid of? Of course she would have said yes.
“We’re never going to be like Jane and Charles,” she continued. “You know what I mean: ‘What do you want to do tonight?’ ‘Whatever you want is fine, dear.’ ‘Oh, no, darling, whatever you want.’”
He chuckled at her spot-on imitation of Jane and Charles, complete with treble and baritone voices.
“We’re going to annoy each other sometimes. And once in a while we’re going to get angry and have big fights, because we’re stubborn and willful and ….” She glanced around and stretched up on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. “And passionate.”
“We’re definitely that.”
“In a good and a bad way. But I can’t imagine my future without you anymore.”
William understood exactly what she meant. “When I see myself ten or twenty years from now, you’re always next to me.”
“Am I aging well?”
“You get more beautiful every year.” He smiled down at her, drinking in the glow in her eyes. Passengers shuffled past on the way through the line, jostling him as they passed. Ordinarily their carelessness would have made him clench his jaw and fix a freezing glare on them, but his elation left no room to worry about petty annoyances.
“How much time do you have left?” she asked.
He glanced at his watch and winced. “About sixty seconds.”
“I wish I could come with you.”
“I know. And I’m warning you, your cell phone is going to be ringing off the hook.”
“Good. And you know, if you weren’t such a twit about technology, I could send you some steamy emails. But Sonya reads your mail, so that’s out.”
“Steamy emails, you say?” He licked his lips. “With an inducement like that, I might start handling it myself.”
She sighed, sliding her hands up his shirtfront. “I guess I have to let you go.”
“I’m afraid so, even if it means leaving my future wife behind.”
Her eyes brightened. “I like the sound of that. Not the leaving me part, obviously. The ‘future wife’ part.”
He kissed her again and then released her. “Goodbye, future wife.”
She stepped back, but then reached out and grasped his hand, her expression solemn. “Even though I have to stay here for now, I’m with you, always. You know that, right? You’re not alone anymore.”
The sweetness of her words washed over him like a soothing balm. He raised her hand to his lips, but it wasn’t enough. So he answered her in the only way possible, drawing her into his arms for one more kiss.
He released her, brushed his knuckles against her cheek, and whispered, “I love you.”
“Right back at you.”
She stepped away, and he joined the queue of fellow travelers, several of whom eyed him with undisguised amusement. A few murmured their congratulations, which he answered with an awkward smile and a nod. He had once witnessed a marriage proposal at a Manhattan restaurant. The waiter had delivered the engagement ring buried inside a—
The ring! He almost smacked himself in the head. Overwhelmed by Elizabeth’s proposal, he had forgotten the diamond ring tucked away in a corner of his briefcase. He craned his neck and saw her departing, too far away to call back.
Perhaps it was just as well. As much as he wanted to see the ring on her finger, he didn’t relish placing it there in the midst of a throng of strangers. He would arrange a suitably romantic occasion when she came to New York.
He glanced back once more and watched her vanish around a corner. My future wife.
He liked the sound of it, too.